Monday, August 27, 2012

Back on the Prairie. Finally!

I've been out of town a lot this summer and it had been a couple of weeks since I'd last been to the Prairie, so when I went out last Friday, I was so surprised. The water was so high! Water levels have been fluctuating all summer. In June, it was so low that the alligators were all bunched up in Alachua Lake. There was just a trickle of water in the canal leading to the sink, and the vegetation had grown up along the banks making it really hard to see down into the mud or water. Then at the end of June we had a big rain and then a tropical storm and suddenly there was water again, after being low for 2 years or more. Water was so high then that it overflowed the banks of the canal to the sink, creating one big body of water from the lake on. The herons were really confused because they lost their usual perches. Then it got hot, and first there was a big fish die off, and then the water started evaporating. When I visited last time, the water was low again around the sink, although there was water in the canal leading down to the viewing platform. Not as dry as early June. That's probably too much information for most people, but when I arrived on Friday, it was clear that we'd had some rain while I was away, because water levels are back up again. As a result, there were birds gathered around new shores and water holes, fishing like crazy. And the butterflies that I'd hoped to find were concentrated on the plants that hadn't drowned in the high water. There was so much movement, color and sound!

The first thing I saw was a Question Mark Butterfly, "puddling" in a muddy spot on the ground. It was the first time I'd seen one, so it was pretty exciting. Unfortunately the puddling pictures didn't turn out well. But I caught one of it sitting on a fence, far away.

Question Mark Butterfly

Just as I saw the Question Mark, I also saw a Great Blue Heron with something in its beak. It was hard for me to choose which one to photograph first--the butterfly I'd never seen before, or the heron with its prey. I chose the butterfly and missed the shot, but lucked out with the heron. It had caught a water snake and was swinging it around for 10 minutes or more before I finally left it alone and walked past. The snake was very much alive and probably put up enough of a fight to make eating it difficult.

Great Blue Heron with Snake
Continuing down the trail, I saw numerous Viceroy Butterflies. There are Willows all along the trail and they are the host plant for the Viceroy Caterpillars. There were also a huge number of Dragonflies, of every kind. I found these unfortunate ones caught in a Garden Orbweaver Spider's web.
Orbweaver Spider and Dragonflies
It's such a joy to see water in a wet prairie after years of drought. I'm excited to think of all the birds that will come this winter. Last year we didn't have many of the Sandhill Cranes, Ducks or Pelicans that we usually get, and it was a lonely year. The water looks great!

Wet Prairie
Along the way to the viewing platform I passed some people who told me that there were plenty of birds, but that there was also a big alligator at the base. But then I met another person who told me that he watched the alligator walk off into the Prairie and didn't know where it was. When I got to my destination, there weren't many birds and the alligator was gone. I sat and admired the view. I saw wild horses in the distance. When I went to head back to my car, however, I was greeted with this:

Alligator in the Path
I'm not afraid of the alligators when they're in the water and I'm on the trail. But when they get up on the path, I'm very nervous. And this one was about 8 feet long and had left about a foot to cross in front of his nose. I was trapped. I decided to give it 15 minutes, then I'd call the ranger station and ask for help. I didn't want to call too quickly because it is a nature park, after all. Some wildlife encounters are to be expected. So I waited. It's funny, because my friend, Grace, had just told me about the same thing happening to her the day before. I knew it would be ok eventually, but it might be a long wait. So I photographed more Viceroys while I waited.

Viceroys on Smartweed
When Grace told me her story of being trapped, she described the way the gator gave a big yawn, then stretched like a cat before moving along. Sure enough, after I'd been waiting about 5 minutes, my gator gave a big yawn, then stood up and walked to the ditch on the other side. Then he climbed into the water and lay next to the bank. I sized up the situation and decided that even though I'd be walking pretty close to the gator, it was in the water and facing away from me, so there was a chance I could get away free. So I walked up, peered over the edge to see where it had gone, and ran as fast as I could to safety.

Walking Gator
Things were much more relaxed on the way back, so when I passed some huge mushrooms, I stopped to take a picture. I tried to use my foot to show some scale, but couldn't do the acrobatics. So I took off my sunglasses and put them on the mushroom. Voila!

The Fun Guy
There was a lot of manure on the trail from horses and bison. The butterflies crave the minerals in the manure and often crowd around. Not the prettiest pictures, and yet in some ways they are really pretty. I always think of "Love Among the Ruins" as a caption when I see this phenomenon. In this case, the manure is the ruins and the beautiful Sulphur Butterflies are the love.

Love Among the Ruins

It frustrates me that it is so hard to capture the frenzied level of insect activity on the Prairie. You just can't photograph the dragonflies swooping back and forth across the trail, or the grasshoppers popping up in the grass as you walk (one popped up and smacked me really hard in the glasses), or the fluttering mania of the butterflies around good nectar flowers. Even a video would be a poor imitation. But maybe you can get a little taste of the activity here.
All A Flutter
Nearly back to the beginning of the trail I passed a big group of Egrets and a Heron fishing and fussing at each other. I thought the birds would make a good picture, and then the alligator sailed through. Much more exciting! The birds generally don't care much about the alligators, and this one didn't phase them much.

Alligator Cruisin'
I was almost done for the day when a family passed me on the boardwalk. I could hear from their conversation that they were from out of town and that a local friend was showing them around. The kids kept asking questions and the friend tried to answer. She really did a pretty good job. But there were a few things that I wanted to pipe up about. "No, Spanish Moss isn't actually a parasite." "Yes, there are a lot of alligators in there, you just can't see them." But when one of the kids asked about the big spider on the rail, I just had to wander over to see for myself. It was a great big Regal Jumping Spider, and I told them it was a neat one to have found. They were a little creeped out by the spider, but I pointed out that jumping spiders have the best eyesight in the animal kingdom and they were impressed. I think I went overboard, though, when I told the boy that I thought he must be part jumping spider, since his eyesight was good enough to spot it. He gave me a funny look and moved on. I was left alone with this pretty female Regal spider and her purple chelicerae. My idea of a great day.

Regal Jumping Spider

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