Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is 22,000 reserved and protected acres immediately south of Gainesville, Florida, in North Central Florida. Park officials boastfully claim that they are residence to 270 different bird species. In addition to the birds, the preserve also shows cases of wild horses, bison, and of course, a dense population of gators.
The main entrance to the Park lies on the eastern side of US Highway 441 several miles south of the Prairie. In that central park location, there is a Visitor’s Center, camping facility with electrical hookups, and several trails. Quite close to the Visitor’s Center is a 50-foot observation tower located on the rim of the Prairie.
Two well-maintained trails on the northern Prairie rim provide excellent opportunities for hiking, observing, and photographing wildlife. One of these trails, Sweetwater Wetlands Park, extends well into a typically wet part of the area but has been facilitated by dredging soil from adjacent areas to elevate the ground level and provide a comfortable walk. Additionally, the dredge work has assured the location of unobstructed water adjacent to the trails, ensures the presence of numerous birds and gators.
The other notable trail located on the northern rim of the Prairie is La Chua Trail. Besides being a popular trail that frequently provides access to the wild horse and bison population, La Chua is popular in that it ends at a location known as The Alachua Sink. Alachua Sink is significant in that it drains water collected on the Prairie into the underwater aquifer. When it is unobstructed, the sink does a good job of emptying the Prairie’s collected water; however, when the rain is high, and it collects obstructive debris, the Prairie typically floods. Consequently, before the visitation, a phone call to the Visitor’s Center would be advised. Flooding should not discourage visitation, but it will provide updated information as to what areas of the Park would be most desirable under the immediate conditions.
During the 1700s, the area of Paynes Prairie was occupied by Seminole Indians under chief Ahaya the Cowkeeper because they managed cattle on the prairie area. During the 1800s, the Seminoles were removed as a result of several wars. In somewhat of a contradictive gesture, the state named the Prairie after the elder son of Chief Ahaya.
After the Indian Removal, European Americans, slaves, and a small number of free people of color occupied the Prairie. In 1927, Camp Ranch Inc. purchased the land and drained much of it by diverting water from Newnans Lake, which typically flowed to the Prairie, to Orange Lake. In 1970, the Prairie was purchased by the state and converted into a state preserve. Since 1970, the state restored the previously diverted water and restored the original conditions to ensure prudent conservation of the area.
Before 1871 Alachua Sink, on the northern rim of the Prairie, was obstructed and water collected in the basin, forming what was known as Alachua Lake. The lake covered the entire Prairie for about 20 years and was large enough and deep enough (58 feet in locations) to support several steamships. However, around 1891, the water level suddenly dropped, forming the Prairie as known today. Today the amount of water on the Prairie vacillates significantly depending on the rainfall and obstruction of Alachua Sink.
Bison were initially indigenous to the eastern part of America, including north-central Florida. After the purchase of the Prairie in 1970, park officials reintroduced bison to the area, but not without complications. In the mid-1980, a common bovine disease, brucellosis, showed up among the new inhabitants. Eventually, park officials seemed to establish some control over the condition, but problems remained due to the aggressive nature of the bull bison. After the bulls showed their aggression, the park officials decided to remove them. After publicizing intentions of slaughter and consumption of the bull bison, the opposition organized quickly.
Under public pressure, the state altered the original plans. Public concerns, however, have not disappeared. Many of the locals attached to the bison fear that park plans include the eventual elimination of the bison.
Another reintroduction to the Prairie was the feral horses of Spanish descent. After the Spanish colonization, wild horses of Spanish origin had a history in the area; consequently, they were another reintroduction. Fortunately, their reintroduction has been more successful.
Native reptiles and small mammal species have found the wildlife protection since 1970 to be accommodating and have thrived. The park officials caution all visitors of the complication of approaching and feeding the Alligators, and thus far, conflicts with large gators have been a non-issue.
Perhaps the most successful park adventure with wildlife has been with the attraction of birds. The Park boastfully promotes the idea that they are residence to 270 species of birds. Without verifying that claim, one must admit that regardless of the season, time of day, or weather, the Prairie is always teeming with birdlife. One feature that still has an attractive influence on birdlife is the presence of natural water sources, and that is plentiful on the Prairie. Not only is the water an essential factor for the birds, but the combination of water and plant life attracts small living organisms that the birds seek nutritionally. There is a large population of resident birds that inhabit the prairie year-round, and there are seasonal inhabitants, but the resident population is always abundant.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection provides a complete web site with complete coverage of park opportunities at https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/paynes-prairie-preserve-state-park.
A video version of this post can be found on YouTube at https://youtu.be/vY4yyLQ0zDc.
Many of the photographs associated with this post were taken by Roger Chilson and additional photographs by Roger are available at https://skyblue43.wordpress.com.
Paynes Prairie State Park showcases unique natural resources that offer great opportunities for hiking, observing, and photographing wildlife. The area is well maintained and furnishes an abundance of environmental needs to a wide range of wildlife. It is especially successful in attracting and providing the ecological needs for an abundant population of birds.
An excellent introduction to and a sample of wildlife available at the Prairie, and especially birds, is available on YouTube as a companion to this article at https://mkapub.com.