It’s Visitor Season here in North Central FL–the worse the weather up north, the more folks want to come visiting in the south (not that I blame them on little bit!). So, we’ve had guests. When my sister stayed, we went to Payne’s Prairie to see the Sandhill crane migration. Nearly 8,000 Sandhill cranes are overwintering here in Alachua County, and they’re guesstimating some 3,000-4,000 are in this park. Along with the Sandhills, a few highly endangered Whooping cranes usually sneak in, staying close to their cousins since they lack numbers to form their own flocks.
First, let’s get a picture of the alligator I nearly stepped on. Yes, that’s right. Stepped on! With the water at Payne’s Prairie at record lows, this bank is really steep. We’d seen no alligators on this side before now, and it was quite steep at this point, so I didn’t mind straying close to the dried grasses at the edge of the walking dike. Luckily for me, my sister was further to the side and saw this guy’s (lady’s?) head around the grasses it was resting behind. Remember, I’m using my iPhone camera, and they don’t do close-ups so well, all right? THAT’s how close this alligator was, even after I stumbled back and away! You can also see the closed eyes, which I found heartily reassuring. (It had been a very chilly night, so the gators were relieved to bask and warm up.)
Next, we found the bison. Until this day, I’d only seen the bison once, very, very far off–little dots in the distance that resolved into bison only with spy-glasses (take that, husband dear! he thinks “spy-glasses” is a ridiculous term. 😛 ) Today, no magnification necessary!
Notice the steep bank falling away from the dike. It’s far shallower on the other side, and you can see a bison clambering down near the center, in the distance. The lady in black is snapping photos of a bison almost directly beneath her! And that’s how we come to…
She wasn’t paying attention when one clambered up beyond her, blocking us all at the end of the one-way path. It moved a few steps away, so we all just waited. Then another one came up between us, blocking her between them. It was a dangerous position, and she knew it, but stepping off the dike into alligator-filled waters seemed a really bad idea, too (turns out, the first bison came up where it did because a huge alligator basked on the bank at the easier way up a few yards further down). Making matters worse, the second bison was pretty determined to join it’s herd-mate, but didn’t want that woman anywhere near it! The one facing me is doing that because I’d just called to it when it started moving towards the woman, head down!
The story has a happy resolution–she managed to sidle over to the other side of the diked path, and then by the bison between us, not raising her head to look it in the eye, as we offered calming words and marked her progress. But we were all still blocked for about another half an hour, until these two decided to rejoin their group in the waters below!
While waiting for our release, we wandered back a bit, and lo-and-behold, Mother Nature had more awesome experience awaiting us–a bison walking along the opposite shore came up against a basking ‘gator in its path. It stopped, stomped a foot and grunted loudly, threateningly (hey, I felt threatened, and I was across the water from it!). In reply, the gator lifted its head and tail, filled its throat, and hissed its warning back. A tense stand-off ensued, until the bison, never taking its eyes from the gator, circled around the gator and back to the water’s edge trail.
Oh, yes, we came for Sandhill cranes! And Payne’s Prairie provided them:
We also managed to see a Whooping crane, but only by using aforementioned spy-glasses (!)(thppppt!), so my phone stood no chance of capturing a photo. Maybe someday I’ll get an actual camera again… Anyway, the noise they make is slightly overwhelming, somewhere between a goose’s honk and a heron’s prehistoric grackle. Multiplied by thousands of birds. Yeah. Overwhelming, and gorgeous.
At the end of the trail is a lookout tower. From there, I got this shot of a lone bison, clouds reflected in the water-hyacinth choked water, and tiny Sandhill-dots in the distance.
Finally, on the way out, this hyacinth-crowned alligator, which, yeah–again, really close. But this time it was at the bottom of a deeply undercut bank, so it made me smile.