Monday, June 8, 2015

30 Days in June: Day 6, Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Gainesville's Newest Nature Park
I imagine that most of the June Challenge participants in Alachua County were as excited about the arrival of the weekend as I was. Currently, the weekend is the only time that we have access to the City's newest nature park, the Sweetwater Wetlands Park (formerly referred to as the Sheetflow Project). I was there shortly after 7am when the gates opened and there were already quite a few cars in the parking lot.

7am and Ready to Go!
This park is fantastic. I've written about it several times because I'm so excited about it. (You can read my previous blog about it here.) Gainesville is very lucky to have such a beautiful resource. I've followed its development very closely over the last year and have already visited 5 times since it opened in May! Unfortunately, the City didn't have enough money in their budget to staff the park every day, so it is open only on weekends and holidays for now. But, hopefully, the new fiscal year will include funding for this important and popular nature area. Unlike the other City nature parks, there is a user fee for this one, and that should help offset expenses. I think most visitors are happy to pay, too, if it means they can have access. There is a season pass available now, so you don't have to come up with the cash every time.

View of the Park Taken in April, Before Opening Day

Thanks to my very fruitful trip to La Chua the day before, I had chalked quite a few items off of my list, so I had just a few target birds for this trip--Killdeer, Coot and Swallowtail Kite. I had a nice surprise, though, as I got started. I saw several of my birding friends standing with their scopes trained on some trees across from a bridge. When I got over to them, Rex asked if I wanted to take a look. He had a Yellow Crowned Night Heron in the scope, a bird I would probably not have found on my own. Much of the fun of the June Challenge is the way birders share with each other, reporting unusual or hard to find birds so that everyone can experience and learn. Yes, the June Challenge is very competitive, but it is a friendly and nurturing competition.

Birders on the Bridge

My first stop was on the boardwalk to see a Killdeer I'd seen the week before (when it didn't count!). I found her right away and got several great photos. If you've never noticed it before, Killdeers have amazing eyes. While I was looking, another friendly set of birders helped me find her beautifully camouflaged eggs in the sand near a palm tree. A little further down the boardwalk I found some Coots splashing and bathing, and missed my chance at the best Purple Gallinule photo ever because of a camera malfunction (read: operator error.) Grrr.

Killdeer Eyes

Well Camouflaged Eggs


Purple Gallinule, Just a After the "Perfect" Shot
Even though it was early, the sun was already high and it was getting hot. I walked around to the back end of the park, just enjoying the sights and sounds. It had rained heavily the night before and the frogs were very loud. The Red-Winged Blackbirds and Grackles made the gurgling and scratchy sounds I've come to associate with marshes and swamps. The sky was blue, the plants were green, and it was just a lovely morning.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Boat-Tailed Grackles Squawking
I believe that public works projects like this are beautiful example of a win-win situation. The City public utility was required to come up with a better treatment plan for waste water entering the aquifer. Working with consultants, they devised a system to let nature treat the the water by creating a series of wetlands. They could have just left it at that, but they also included public access to the wetlands, which would be attractive to wildlife, and a park was born out of something otherwise utilitarian. Now, there is a new habitat for wildlife, a wonderful destination for nature enthusiasts, and an opportunity to educate the public about the importance of wetlands, our drinking water, and wildlife habitats. Everyone wins here. Other cities have created similar parks with great success. This January I visited Green Cay and Wakodahatchee in Palm Beach County and had some of my best ever wildlife experiences. I saw nesting birds up close and saw many species of birds and butterflies I rarely if ever see in Gainesville. I was in West Palm Beach for a week and every time I visited one of these parks (I went several times), they were bustling with photographers, strollers, speed walkers, nature lovers and people of all ages and demographics. The High Line Park in Manhattan is an abandoned elevated freight train line to that was turned into a linear park, with wildflowers, butterflies, trees, benches and sculptures right in the heart of the city. There are community gardens or city parks built on abandoned lots. Bicycle trails on old train lines. These are all examples of turning decay or blight into something healthy and beautiful. We need more green spaces, parks and gardens.

Anhinga and Water Lotus

This philosophy is almost exactly the opposite of what the head of the Florida State Department of Environmental Protection, Governor Rick Scott, and the Florida Legislature want to do. They are proposing that the State take "empty" sections of Florida's fabulous State Parks (such as Myakka, near Sarasota) and make them "self sustaining", opening up parks for cattle grazing, logging and cell phone towers, so that they can generate money. As if generating money what the parks are for. They completely miss the point of conservation and preservation, of disappearing habitats and endangered species. They miss the point of spending time in peace and tranquility, with fresh air and water. Every hour, every minute, the world loses more natural habitat. The world is a much sadder place without nature and natural areas. We need to protect the wild places that we have if we are going to have anything left for future generations. What these government officials fail to realize is that natural areas are healthy and good for people, as well as for the animals and plants, and that they bring lots of money to the state in the form of hotels, restaurants, eco-tours and equipment rentals. People come to Florida's parks and natural areas to get away from the city and development. They want to see snakes, alligators and manatees, migrating birds, wildflowers and pristine beaches. No one wants to take a vacation or special trip to see a cattle ranch or logged out forest.

Wetlands Hard At Work

And you can't just pop cattle into a park or log a section without having consequences. Smaller habitat or encroaching development will change what animals can survive in a certain area. Grazing and logging don't constitute good land management. This is land exploitation and development. People who want to develop our parks ignore that fact that we already have lost most of our wild land. Cutting away a little more leaves a smaller percent of an already small percent. We need more preservation, not less.

Common Gallinule Family with Photo Bomb from a Least Bittern!


Which brings me back to the Sweetwater Wetlands Park. Few people would be interested in visiting a waste water treatment area. But make it attractive, with native plants, walkways and boardwalks over the wetlands, and people will flock to the same waste water treatment area to see the local wildlife. They will willingly pay $5 per carload to get in. This should be a model nationwide. Build more parks and the people will come! If the State is really concerned about the future of the parks, they could charge a little bit more for park entries. But I don't think that's really the issue. They say that the parks are taking limited money away from education and other important programs. But I know there are other ways to stretch that budget. It's a matter of prioritizing, and right now, our State Government puts a very low priority on our environment.

My morning at Sweetwater was refreshing and wonderful, as always. I walked for 3 hours, all over the park. I saw my target birds, plus the Yellow Crowned Night Heron and a Blue Gray Gnatcatcher. I made a new friend of a fellow birder and walked together with her looking (unsuccessfully) for a King Rail. I saw 13 Least Bitterns (14 with the photo bomb I just discovered today!), a Limpkin nest and Wood Storks and watched some bellowing Alligators. I definitely got my money's worth.

There are Limpkins Nesting in the Cattails

Least Bittern

Bellowing Gator

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