Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne turned Paynes Prairie from a freshwater marsh into a big lake in September 2004, and the water took so long to recede that the park rangers weren't able to open the La Chua Trail until November 2006. Precisely six months later, the Prairie is dry. I stood on the observation platform at lunchtime today, and what used to be water on both sides of the platform is now an expanse of green (scanned carefully for sod-loving shorebirds, but the only thing I saw out there was a grackle). 

There’s still water in the canal, though not much, and today I witnessed an alligator feeding frenzy – explosive thrashing, fish arcing out of the water, loud grisly cracking noises as gars and tilapia were crushed in the gators’ jaws. One alligator dragged a gar onto a mud flat and collapsed there, and in my field of view I saw the gator with the expiring fish in its jaws, two Black Vultures standing a foot away from the gator's snout waiting for scraps, and just a couple feet beyond the gator a pair of Common Moorhens squaring off against each other, heads down.

Except for Gator Point, where the canal empties into Alachua Lake, birdlife was pretty minimal: no warblers, no sparrows, very few shorebirds. At Gator Point I counted 280 American White Pelicans, 45 Wood Storks, and 50 Great Blue Herons (lots of them juveniles), plus 55 Black Vultures just sitting around waiting for more fish to die. Most of the other wader species must be preoccupied with nesting, because I think I saw only one Great Egret, only one Snowy, only one Tricolored, and only one Little Blue. Also: four Sandhill Cranes, half a dozen Bald Eagles, two Mississippi Kites, two Black-necked Stilts, a Spotted Sandpiper, three Lesser Yellowlegs, two Least Sandpipers, and a flock of about 40 Bobolinks.

Rex Rowan

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