Seeing Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie

Seeing  Sandhill Cranes at Paynes Prairie

The air is alive with noise. All around us on Paynes Prairie near Gainesville it sounds like a thousand squeaky doors swinging open and shut on their hinges – creak, creak, creak.

Noise surrounds us. We can’t see the noisemakers but I can almost taste my anticipation. I really want to see the noisemakers and so does everyone else in the group.

Binoculars swing from neck straps. Cameras are hand held but loosely, at our sides, it isn’t picture time yet. We’re walking along a dike called La Chua Trail, a group of day trippers led by Lars Andersen of Adventure Outpost in High Springs and the author of “Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savanna.”

Lars tells us about the Indians who lived here ever so long ago. One tribe controlled Paynes Prairie and its riches including churt, also called flint, a material considered prime for making tools and weapons. Surprise! They were early entrepreneurs with a corner on the market.

A bald eagle flies overhead. We take that as a good sign. The morning is warming up but no one sheds fleece jackets, still too nippy for that. We walk on. The noises are getting louder.

Sandhill cranes flock to Paynes Prairie near Gainesville in the winter months

sandhill cranes come to Paynes Prairie in the winter
sandhill cranes, and a few whooping cranes, come to Paynes Prairie in the winter months

Suddenly, the scene opens up, the vegetation along the edges of the dike clears and there they are – hundreds of Northern Sandhill Cranes along with two whooping cranes who seem quite comfortable hanging out with sandhills. We’re seeing hundreds around the prairie there are thousands. They are literally snowbirds.

We’re stunned at the sight. It took me a few minutes of staring open-mouthed before I thought, oh, right, camera, raise camera, turn it on, and take pictures NOW. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a longer lens?

Sandhills obviously like to eat and talk simultaneously. These are long lanky birds dressed in grey with red on the tops of their heads. Their beaks push around the prairie mud looking for food. Little spats flare up here and there about who should be where – two cranes lift necks, flap wings at each other, do a little dance, then settle down again to the business of eating plant and animal materials.

In the winter sandhills migrate from Michigan and Wisconsin to South Georgia and Florida. This is a banner year for sandhills at Paynes Prairie. Why so many? No one has THE answer but lots of speculation.

Lars tells us the birds are eating amaranth seeds. Amaranth is an ancient grain, the first to be cultivated as a crop in the New World. Aztecs used amaranth extensively, even in their sacrifice ceremonies.

When the Spanish came along, all things Aztec were forbidden, including growing amaranth. It is making a comeback these days. The grain grows wild on the prairie. This has been a very good year for amaranth; perhaps the sandhill cranes know that and have come to harvest the good stuff. Some sandhills like Paynes Prairie so much they will stay year round but most go back up North.

We meander to the end of the trail and an observation tower. Way off to the left, in a small body of water, a bison is spotted. Bison? Yes, the prairie has them. On the way back we see several alligators and a bittern. It is a banner day for wildlife sightings.

sandhill cranes - photographer
sandhill cranes – photographer

Sandhill Cranes easy to see on LaChua Trail

For Libby Schecher, every visit to Paynes Prairie is special. Libby is from Maine, staying in Gainesville for one year to study acupuncture. “I love coming to the prairie. I’ve fallen in love with alligators, they are so ancient, with small brains but they care for their young, make nests.”

Ah, alligators. One thing I like about walking on dikes is when we see an alligator; it is down in the water, much lower than we are. That works for me. I do not want to look an alligator in the eye. That small brain thinks everything is lunch.

Libby recalls coming to the prairie last week and seeing alligators sunning themselves at Alachua Sink. Along come several wild turkeys that stop, look towards the alligators, discuss the situation, go forward two steps, go backwards two steps, and finally retreat, leaving the area. Smart turkeys.

Paynes Prairie is a 21,000 -acre preserve with multiple access points. The LaChua Trail that we took is three miles round-trip from the North Rim of the Prairie to the observation tower. Main access is 4801 Camp Ranch Road. LaChua Trail opens at 8:00 a.m. and is open 7 days a week. No pets on this trail. For safety and wildlife disturbance reasons, the trail closes 1 hour before sunset.

Every time you go to the prairie it is different. Right now the La Chua Trail is very popular. Families with baby strollers, couples arm in arm, groups and gawkers – all are coming with hopes of seeing sandhill cranes.
Your turn to plan a visit to Paynes Prairie, a slice of authentic Florida. Go for it.

Lucy Beebe Tobias lives in Ocala. She is the Authentic Florida Expert for VISIT FLORIDA and the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida”

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Alachua County Forever Opens Sweetwater Preserve

Alachua County Forever Opens Sweetwater Preserve
Alachua County Forever opens it fifth property
Instead of a ribbon cutting, Sweetwater Preserve had a vine cutting for its opening on July 18,2008

Alachua County Forever opened its fifth property to the public on July 19, 2008, with a vine cutting at Sweetwater Preserve.

Two reasons to cheer – new trails to walk plus another piece of natural Florida saved from concrete and condos.

Alachua County Forever opens its fifth property

Bob Simons, a member of the Alachua County Land Conservation Board, along with Sandra Vardaman, county land conservation biologist, Alachua County Commission Chair Rodney Long and Robert Hutchinson, executive director of the Alachua Conservation Trust, used branch cutters to snip away at the vines. It took a few snips and some laughter but they got the job done.

Sweetwater Preserve has two walking trails

Onlookers divided into two groups for guided walks around the property. There are two trails. A West Trail for 1.75 miles and an East Trail, a 1.2-mile walk. The 1.2 nature walk starts out as a sand trail with cut logs on the sides and takes visitors through eight different natural communities, as elevations change from high and sandy to low and swampy. The natural community names sound exotic, like way stations in a science fiction novel – upland mixed forest, seepage slope forest, sinkhole lake, xeric hammock and floodplain forest.

mark stowe shows walking sticks on underside of a palmetto leaf at Sweetwater preserve
Mark Stowe shows walking sticks on underside of a palmetto leaf at Sweetwater preserve

On the guided opening day walk, a Gainesville spider expert, Mark Stowe, a research assistant in University of Florida’s Department of Zoology, kneels down and uncovers a purse web at the base of a tree. You had to squint and look close to see it – a flexible tube the color of the tree – but once revealed walkers start spotting others along the trail.
Stowe turns over a palmetto leaf to reveal walking sticks on the other side. Perhaps trying to hide but they don’t succeed. Seems bears like to eat them a lot.

Erick Smith shows a pygmy hickory growing in Sweetwater Preserve

Erick Smith,
private consultant, led one walk. He advised staying on the trail as the area is loaded with ticks. If you go walking here, wear long trousers, tuck trouser bottoms inside socks, and check yourself afterwards. This is good advice.
Sweetwater Preserve covers 125 acres and was purchased in 2006 by Alachua County with funding from Alachua County Forever Bond and a Florida Communities Trust grant. The land sits just north of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park but a fence divides the two and there is no place to cross from one to the other at this time.

A couple walks their dog on the Sweetwater Preserve trail

Sweetwater Preserve used to be pastureland

For many years this was pastureland. As the biologists like to say, it is “highly disturbed” but promising. Lots of restoration ideas are going to get a tryout here. Go now and come back in a year and things will be much different.

Enjoy the details – a zigzag spider web with a white zig zag in the middle of the web. No one knows why the spider does this. Stowe suggests the spider is making an announcement to birds that “you don’t want to preen your feathers and I don’t want to build a new web so why not stay clear?”

Sweetwater Preserve Trailhead is 1200 feet north of the Boulware Springs Park Gainesville-Hawthorne Trailhead (see map). Park here and walk or bike to Sweetwater. If you are riding a bike, chain up on the cool snake bike rack at the Sweetwater Trailhead. Designed by Kevin Ratkus of Alachua County Forever one end depicts a Scarlet King Snake and the other end has a Coral Snake painted on the bars. An information kiosk has free trail maps of Sweetwater Preserve or you can download them.

location map for Sweetwater Preserve
location map for Sweetwater Preserve

©2008 Lucy Beebe Tobias,all rights reserved.Lucy Beebe Tobias is a Florida Environmental Writer. Her book “50 Great Walks in Florida” is available at


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