In 2013, I moved to MIcanopy, which is very close to Paynes Prairie. The Prairie, as well as the incredible Live Oaks on my property are why I moved here. I frequently walk on different trails in the State Park and have often been to La Chua Trail. Never have I experienced wildlife like I did this New Year's Day. My soul felt so healed after spending a few hours with all these magnificent creatures. At the same time, I felt a bit unsettled that it was so dry and so many creatures were congregating in the same place.
I was surprised to see the water levels so low the moment I walked out on the trail and quickly realized we are in even more of a drought than I realized. Driving by the prairie, I had noticed it as being browner than usual. In fact, according to the Keetch-Byram Drought Index used by the Florida Division of Forestry, western Alachua County is already in the upper end of the drought scale with the rest of the county to follow. This was reported in the Gainesville Sun on December 2. Almost a month later, I saw evidence that the condition had in fact worsened as predicted, bringing with it an increased chance for fires and also cannibalism. Andi Christman, a park biologist, told the Sun in December that as the prairie dries up more and more animals will make there way here, which is what I and other park visitors witnessed on New Year's Day. Everyone I met along the trail said they had never seen it like this. Although at first the experience of seeing so much wildlife filled me with joy, I kept remembering the image above since I had never seen the Alachua Sink this low, and researched droughts in the prairie when I got home. After the drought in 2013, very large alligators began appearing along the trail. As food sources dwindled, they began eating each other. For example a 9 foot alligator would eat a 6 foot alligator Christman said. (http://www.gainesville.com/news/20161202/parched-conditions-bring-risk-of-fire-animal-cannibals)
When I saw this alligator and Heron further along the channel on the trail, their positions made me feel they were having a standoff. They were still peacefully coexisting, but I experienced an uneasy sense of tension looking at them. Maybe all the creatures on the prairie are intuiting what may come if the drought conditions worsen and more of their food supplies disappear.
One of the biggest threats to vegetation in Paynes Prairie are the bison, which munch away all day. At first I was so excited to see so many there and up close, but I began to realize that so many congregating in one area, though it was an experience of a life time for us hikers, was ominous for all the wildlife. It dawned on me too that the same thing is happening to humans. As our water and food disappear, because as there is less water there will be less food–both plant and animal based, we are going to be competing for these scarce resources in much the same way. I fear for the future of these creatures even more than I fear for our own future, because they have even less rights than we do. Some species no doubt will survive, the ones that need less water, but the unfairness of what is happening to these animals from climate change suddenly became very clear to me.
This young wild horse was munching grass with its parents. All the times I have seen the horses before, they were much farther away as they are wild and tend to steer clear of people. They were likely coming in closer to get the fresher not browned out grass closer to the water supply.
This Greater Yellow Legs was in the same pond with a cormorant, Great Blue Heron, alligator and snakes. I hoped it would be protected within these circles, that they were somehow creating a safe zone. It was such a beautiful looking bird.
Wading, preening, going on about life's business all in such close proximity. It was as if all these creatures were suddenly placed in a fish bowl for us to see and for them to work out how to coexist comfortably while they still can.
This alligator, though it was taking a siesta, was ready to move at a moment's notice, either to stalk his pray or escape from being stalked.
Cranes were performing mating dances while others pecked for food and red winged blackbirds did the same.
At one point closer to dusk, I was standing on the observation deck and suddenly this huge wave of Red Winged Blackbirds took off and filled the sky. Sadly there many contrails were visible, man's mark in the sky.
For quite a while, people marveled at the Whooping Crane, which is white and larger in size.
In the distance, there was a small group of pelicans. They flashed white in the setting sun.
I particularly enjoyed how they seemed to fly in formation and then make such graceful landings–even when the ground was filled with other birds.
In the opposite direction, there was a patch of water that looked like a clear mirror in the waning light. More and more cranes kept landing for their last feeding before nightfall.
Walking back, I saw the wild horses again just feet from the trail. There were only small patches of green grass left here.
Paynes Prairie is such a special place. I have traveled around the world and it remains one of the most remarkable places I have visited. Thought it was an exceptional day and it healed my soul to be around such wonderful animals, this hike really drove the lesson home how affected they and we are by climate change. The floods and fires affect habitat and feeding and the safety of our homes and access to resources for all.