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Birding in Florida: Paynes Prairie Preserve

 The best birding in Florida for us was without a doubt La Chua Trail at Paynes Prairie State Park. This elevated boardwalk that leads out into a wetland starts just after a barn with infographics about the buffalo and wild horses (WILD HORSES!) one can see at this place. Alas, we did not see any wildhorses or buffalo, but wowie did we see some birds.

From the moment we walked in the birds were falling out of the trees. Literally. There was a massive live oak covered in Spanish moss and at least ten wood storks. While we walked by one of them hopped into the sky and flew overheard, guiding us deeper into this preserve.

Bizarre shrieks and guttural rattles drew our attention to one of my targets for Florida, a limpkin. This speckled wading bird has a somewhat gangly appearance and a call that feels like it came right out of the Triassic (apparently, they often use it in movies to make jungles seem more jungly). We saw one moving across aquatic plants. Another probing in the water with its bill, another on the handrail just ahead of us. It didn’t fly off until Leo was less than five feet from it.

Next, was what I had thought was the main attraction, and they were indeed fascinating. A family of Snail Kites (I counted five) live at La Chua Trail year-round. These nearly all black, slender raptors with a hooked bill and red eyes eat only apple snails, and thus rarely leave densely vegetated marshlands like the one we found ourselves on. And why would they? As we watched, one of them caught the wind and seemed to levitate maybe fifteen feet above the surface of the water before dropping beneath the reeds and out of sight. It emerged a moment later with a snail in its talons. It flew over to the same branch two other kites were sitting on, and proceeded to disembowel the snail, or whatever it is you do to snails don’t really think they have bowels, rip out its guts? I don’t know. It was cool. That’s for sure. It pinned it down with one talon and used it hooked beak to reach inside the swirling black shell for breakfast. Nature is fucking metal.

We proceeded down the path only to find two sand hill cranes engaged in some sort of dance. It had to be something like courtship, or foreplay, or something for it was both evocative and quite silly to watch. One of the dusky blue, red capped cranes would trumpet some bizarre note and tap a few steps, perhaps flap its wings, then the other would do the same thing, perhaps with the slightest variation, a touch of improvisation. The first would then repeat, again with just one or two notes changed. Back and forth they went until someone got too close (Not me! But it was inevitable, they were only a couple of feet off the path and it wasn’t as if anyone could walk away from such a spectacle) and they flew off.

We saw them later though, when we watched an alligator that might have been a dozen feet long (maybe 3 meters for people with a functioning measurement system) haul itself out of the pond. The cranes were obviously not from around here, because they watched this prehistoric beast trundle out of his swampy deaths with the same slack jawed fascination as we did. Though the cranes were less cautious than me. One of them approached the gator and managed to get close enough to draw the ire of the mighty reptile. It sort of grunted as it moved toward the Crane, which worked quite well, and made the Crane back the fuck up.

We kept our distance on the dock, watching the spectacle, hoping that the college students there to count birds for class didn’t try to get as close as the cranes did. 


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