Three Weeks Birding in Florida - Paine's Prairie and Sweetwater Park

This will be the last entry regarding our birding exploits in Florida this year and in some ways the best has been saved until last. Paine's Prairie was the first nature reserve created in Florida and remains an excellent place to visit and now that Sweetwater Preserve has also been opened the range of habitats available to the birder must be as great as is possible here. 

Due to the dry Autumn and Winter birding at the South Entrance was likely to be disappointing so we took the advice (including detailed written directions) from the ranger on duty at the Visitor Centre and headed for the North Entrance (learning about the existence of Sweetwater at the same time). It always pays to visit the main entrance of a large reserve to seek up-to-date advice from the rangers. Note that both entrances of Paine's Prairie and Sweetwater have restrooms and ample parking.

We chose to head for the board-walk on the La Chua Trail which passes the Alachua Sink as we had been told there would be plenty of birds in the remaining water - and to stay clear of alligators! (The trials named after the largest Cattle Ranch that was here in the 1600's when the area was occupied by Spanish Immigrants.

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La Chua Trail at North Entrance to Paine's Prairie, Alachua County.

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Alligators are just a couple of meters from the path in places...
By now we were no longer too excited by (another) osprey or heron but the white birds near the start of the board-walk turned out to be Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage - a species that had not been present at Gatorland earlier in the holiday. I was also pleased to capture a nice well-lit image of a Northern Cardinal in the woodland by the restrooms and we were entertained for some time by two Great Blue Herons posturing until one decided to move on...

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Cattle Egret in Breeding Plumage.

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Cattle Egret in Breeding Plumage.

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Male Northern Cardinal.

Great Blue Heron.
We began to feel lucky when a Red-shoulder Hawk was spotted hunting - and flying TOWARDS us - landing on the stumps of broken tree-trunks every few yards to look of prey. Much holding of breath ensued...

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Red-Shouldered Hawk.
It should be noted that by now we had come to the end of the elevated board-walk and were walking along a raised path with sloping sides just a few feet above he water - with a LOT of BIG sun-bathing alligators - it is important that we Brits remember at all times NOT TO GET TOO CLOSE by accident - we simply cannot leave the path for that closer view! Still, the ensuing views of Semipalmated Plover (breeding plumage this time) and Wilson's Snipe were quite close enough for the 400mm lens on my Canon 80D as were the Mottled Ducks (not Mallards) that seemed abundant here in spite of their 'threatened' status due to interbreeding with European Mallards.

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Semipalmated Plover on mud-flat.

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Wilson's Snipe.

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Mottled Ducks.
By now it was past noon and the temperature was building so we decided to retrace our steps and search for shade - it is important to pay attention to the real danger of heat-stroke here. We also wanted to stop-off at the Sweetwater Preserve as we had heard this might be our last chance to see Florida Sandhill Cranes (the 700+ other Sandhill Cranes had flown north the week before!).
As an aside it is worth looking at the history of this gem of a reserve as before 2007 it was in a sorry state due to polling run-off and interrupted water flows.

When we arrived at the entrance we were immediately struck by the high standard of paths and other infrastructure present on the site; this is a real bonus for the local residents who just want to cycle or stroll in the sun as well as a perfect birding site for the rest of us: let us hope Trump doesn't put an end to such projects in the future. Limpkins were 'everywhere' and I soon had that much-sought-after shot of one with a snail in it's beak. Glossy Ibis were also plentiful and looking particularly photogenic in the strong afternoon sunshine and Wood Storks were easily spotted as they fished in the still waters along with  Great Blue Herons and Anhingas.

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Glossy Ibis.

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Wood Stork fishing in Sweetwater Park.

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Wood Stork fishing by attracting fish into the shadows cast by his wings.
As the day wore on and the heat and walking began to take their toll I commented to She Who Must be Obeyed "All we need now is a Bittern and we can go home"just as a commotion caused by a couple of American Coots as they suddenly swam away from the edge of the reeds on the opposite side of the water channel caught my eye...

..."What's THAT"...

It was an American Bittern just visible in the reeds as it fished; we watched the bird for a good half-hour before finally heading back towards the car (he did not actually catch anything).

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American Bittern.
Surely that was it? Well no, as we heard two Cranes calling just ahead. The Florida Sandhill Cranes had just flown in to roost along with a Whooping Crane and were just waiting to be photographed! The Red-Shouldered Blackbirds were also appearing at the top of branches to proclaim their territories as well; catching a bird with red shoulders displayed proved entertaining...

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Florida Sandhill and Whooping Cranes.

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Florida Sandhill Crane calling.

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Red-shouldered Blackbird.

So there we have it - a birding trip to be remembered for a long time! Now it is back to Blighty with dull cold weather and the birds WAY over there...

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