Monday, September 29, 2014


The Sweetwater Dike Trail--you can see the canal on the right 

This past weekend my husband and I took a trip to La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie to get one last walk up Sweetwater Dike trail that will disappear after this week. It's funny, but for most of the 17 or so years that I've been visiting La Chua Trail, I didn't pay much attention to that trail. It was often overgrown and seemed hot and a little snaky, and I didn't think it really went anywhere. I was more interested in following the main trail down to the viewing platform at the end. But a few years ago I got more involved in birding and found a group of people that hiked out there a lot. Soon I discovered that it was a good place to look for certain birds. The path was lined with bushes and grass that provided good habitat for birds such as Orchard Orioles, Yellow Breasted Chat, Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks and the occasional Painted Bunting, just to name a few. I also discovered that the trail could be a good place to find the bison, wild horses and feral hogs, as well as raccoons and an occasional bobcat. This year we had a very wet winter and a lot of the main La Chua trail was under water for much of the season. The Park rangers directed visitors out along the dike trail so they could still experience the wonders of Paynes Prairie and the path became very popular with birders, photographers and hikers. The marshes were especially vibrant this year, allowing good views of King Rails, Least Bitterns, Purple Gallinules, Sandhill Cranes, and Pied Billed Grebes and all varieties of chicks. Butterflies of all types enjoyed the flowers along the trail and the presence of Willows guaranteed a Viceroy in the late summer and fall. The wet weather flooded the low lying areas this year and we had an incredible display of American Lotus and Pickerelweed. And, yes, there were lots of alligators and snakes. My friends and I usually tried to make a lot of noise when we walked, but still managed to stand next to or even right on snakes in the grass. And many times I stood on that dike, surrounded by the bellowing of gators up and down the canal. It was a scary and thrilling sensation. Just this week I worried a mama gator and her clutch of new hatchling babies. It has been a wonderful addition to my Prairie experiences and it gave me many opportunities for amazing wildlife viewing.

Purple Gallinule Chick along the Sweetwater Dike this week

New Hatchling Gators by the side of the trail. They scattered as soon as they saw us!

The Sweetwater Dike trail is going to disappear because of a big, exciting water management project that is nearing completion on the edge of the Prairie. Filling in the canal that runs along the dike is one of the last phases to complete that project. Basically, the City and our local utility company (GRU), the County, and Paynes Prairie State Park have worked together with environmental consultants and contractors to purchase land next to the park and create a water treatment area that will filter and buffer treated wastewater and storm run-off from the city through a series of created wetlands. The water will flow out of the wetlands, and the sheetflow over the Prairie will help filter and purify the water before it reaches the Alachua Sink, where it goes directly into the aquifer. You can read more about the project here at the City of Gainesville's website. Currently, the water is channelled through the Sweetwater Canal that was built in the 1930's by previous owners who ran cattle and wanted to dry out sections of the Prairie. The water comes into the canal from the city with all the associated pollution and excess nutrients that come from waste, and street and landscape runoff. The water also contains trash and seeds and pieces of invasive plants. Creating the wetlands and filling in the canal will help restore the sheet flow to spread the water runoff evenly over the Prairie and the plants and trash will be caught in traps before they reach the Prairie. In addition, the project includes 2-3 miles of trails and boardwalks around the 3 wetlands and there are plans for an educational buildings and observation towers, too.

Wetlands to the left, construction road in the middle

Boardwalk and Plantings

Outdoor Classroom, Boardwalks and one of the Wetlands

Boardwalk over the Wetlands

I had an opportunity to tour the Sheetflow Project construction site with members of Alachua Audubon last month. It was not my first trip there, but it was my first trip coming in the "front door" and walking on the trails and boardwalks, rather than from the Sweetwater Dike trail which leads right there. Judging from my preview of the Sheetflow Project, I'm pretty sure it is going to become one of my new favorite places for hiking and photography. The wetlands are almost complete, but even as the ponds were first being built, the alligators and wading birds were moving in to this attractive new habitat. The native plantings around the construction area are taking hold and during the tour I took last month, we saw Roseate Spoonbills, many types of Sandpipers, Limpkins, Black Bellied Whistling Ducks, Dowitchers, Plovers, Kingfishers, and a Great White Heron, just to name a few. Tracks in the mud showed that that raccoons, armadillos and deer had moved right in, too. One of the rangers at Paynes Prairie told a group of volunteers last fall that a side benefit from the construction of the Sheetflow Project was that it will be such a nice wildlife viewing area that might take some of the pressure off of the more fragile La Chua Trail that has become enormously popular over the past 6-8 years.
Birds already moving in. There is a Roseate Spoonbill in the group.

Wide Variety of Wading Birds


Big Colony of Black Bellied Whistling Ducks

Something for Everyone! Note Kingfisher in the tree.

Semi Palmated Plover

Limpkins have found some exotic Apple Snails

Have no fear, Raccoons are Here!

I am definitely going to miss the Sweetwater Dike trial. In a short time I became quite fond of walking up there. I know that animals will be displaced and that there will be casualties. My husband and I saw the remains of a squashed snake on the trail, probably run over by heavy equipment, and a little turtle that didn't make it. The gator nest I saw this week will be relocated one way or another. And the birds will come back next spring to find their familiar bushes and trees missing. But nature is pretty good at healing and I'm fairly confident that the animals will find new places and will probably really benefit from the new, improved landscape. I am very optimistic and hopeful about the changes to come and look forward to this winter when the boardwalks are supposed to be open to the public. All of the people that I have met who are connected to the Sheetflow Project have been dedicated and sincere about their commitment to the project. I believe that they have done all they can to make sure that disruptions to the wildlife will be done with great care.  We visitors will lose one nice access to close nature encounters, but we will gain many more in the boardwalks around the wetlands.
Setting up Silt Baffles before the construction begins

Taking out Trees on the sides of the path

Snake Casualty--Not sure what happened to it
So, things they are a changin'. And just imagine--2 incredible natural areas, La Chua Trail and the Sweetwater Branch/Paynes Prairie Sheetflow Project right next door to each other! I can't wait to get out there and explore!
Pickerel Weed on the Wet Prairie