sandhill cranes flying above palm trees, migration, winter in Florida
Paynes Prairie State Park in North Florida is famous for the flocks of sandhill cranes that winter here among the local birds, wild horses, and bison.

This winter, I finally got to travel back up to Gainesville to explore Paynes Prairie State Park and few other natural areas to look for sandhill cranes, big roaming mammals, and lots of gators and wading birds. To my delight I saw and photographed more than I even expected.

A special thank you to my dear friend Hollie, who took me to a few of her favorite places and inspired me to keep going further.

Here are a few moments and photos from these walks into the state park. In the future, I’m planning more blog posts about other photo walks around Gainesville outside of the state park – and also at least one post with photos from a spring-time visit.

For less words and more / other / changing photos, check out the related photo gallery.

yellow meadowlark singing, winter tree without leaves, blue sky

While I took lots of landscape and plant-life photos, when I picked favorites from this trip into Paynes Prairie State Park, a majority of them seem to be of birds, yet again. Birds have been keeping me saner (by distracting and delighting) throughout these weird times. Hope they’re doing the same for you. 

Snail Kite, brown bird of prey, pointy beak, endangered in the US, Paynes Prairie State Park, Florida
Snail Kite – scoping for big apple snails
Alligator submerged in water, eyes visible, La Chua Trail, Paynes Prairie State Park, Florida
Real Gator in Gator Country (in case you didn’t know: Gainesville is the home of the UF Gators football team and the sports drink Gatorade).
Two great blue herons standing in water, breeding feathers, La Chua Trail, Florida
Great Blue Herons showing off their seasonal fancy breeding feathers.
flock of sandhill cranes flying over brown winter prairie grass, blue sky, winter migration, Paynes Prairie, Florida
And there they were: while in Paynes Prairie State Park it wasn’t possible to get close to the sandhill cranes were they were standing around – I kept seeing them fly overhead – hooting up a storm.
wooden boardwalk, pier, into the fog, lake, wetlands, Paynes Prairie, Florida, US 441
On my second morning, I was driving to the state park early to get onto a trail as soon as they opened. Driving on US-441 along the park, I saw the fog roll in from the south and approach this boardwalk on the other side of the highway. Of course, I had to turn around. That fog over the prairie swamp and the pier were just too enticing – and before walking out to get a few photos before the mist rolled in completely and I could hardly see anything anymore.
cormorant with big fish perfectly suspended in bill, beak, eating fish, fog, lake
In the fog I couldn’t quite see what was going on. But after upping the contrast in Photoshop, it was revealed: a cormorant about to swallow a sizable fish. It was so lucky that I captured exactly this moment and that they were in perfect profile that even to me it looks fake. It isn’t. 
deer in the fog, tall brown grass, Paynes Prairie
Deer looking back out of the morning mist.

I had made it back into Paynes Prarie State Park and up the observation platform and almost walked back down without seeing the deer staring back at me from the remaining fog. But in the last moment I did. About an hour later I saw a deer jump a fence and get stuck in barbed wire – it was coming from the other direction trying to get back into the park. So I don’t think it’s from this group. But who knows? It was an awful ordeal to witness. I called the ranger station and eventually someone came and cut the deer loose. She jumped away quickly – and I was assured she’d be fine. I had accidentally dropped my “Let’s make the world a happier place.” notebook and the ranger who gave it back to me said: today, you really did. I was so touched by his words – but couldn’t help feeling that I was the one who had disturbed the deer in the first place (even though they were not running away from me – but across my path at few hundred feet ahead, I still fear I may have startled them by my presence in their early morning world). 

oak trees, spanish moss, morning fog, Paynes Prairie State Park, Florida
Spanish moss in the mist – can it get more Southern Gothic than that?
oak trees and prairie, for rising in morning sunlight, Paynes Prairie, Florida
A wider view of the line of oak trees covered in Spanish moss at the edge of Paynes Prairie as the morning fog slowly lifts.
oak trees, spanish moss, morning fog and sunshine, visitors center, Paynes Prairie, Florida
Where the forest ends and the prairie begins – as the sun burns off the fog across the winter gold.
sweet gum, fruit, seed, round with spikes, spiderweb, dew drops, Florida
Sweet gum tree seed pod covered in spiderweb and morning dew.
blue grey gnatcatcher, small songbird, grey blue body, white eyeliner, black bill
Doesn’t this look like a cartoon bird? My first definite sighing of a Blue-Grey Gnatcatcher. By the way, I love how we have different little song birds in the US vs. Europe. So many more fun species to discover and appreciate.
sandhill cranes in flight, long necks, different wing positions
More sandhill cranes flying by and perfectly showing off the three stages of their wings in flight.
brown bird of prey, wings outstretched, Paynes Prairie, Florida
So, uh… what is that? Do you see the bird that looks like the top of a totem pole carved from wood? I wasn’t sure if it was real at the time because it was so far away and didn’t move. Now I’m convinced that it is real – but which bird it is, I don’t know. Maybe a brown juvenile bald eagle? Note that there is another bird of prey sitting on top of a tree to the left.
yellow meadowlark singing, winter tree without leaves, blue sky, Paynes Prairie, Florida
Meadowlark on a moss-covered tree – singing and singing and singing, in-between fluttering around with another meadowlark. Winter is mating season in Florida.
grey sandhill cranes with red heads, long neck extended, flying
I DID come here for the big sandhill crane migration – so here are two more of those beautiful red-headed birds.

In case you’d like to see close-ups of sandhill cranes, I did captured some of those as well, just not at Paynes Prarie State Park (figures). For now you can find some of those photos in this gallery: Colorful Birds. They might get their own album one day…

sandhill cranes flying above palm trees, migration, winter in Florida
I actually tried to get a picture of these three palms standing tall and still green among all the dried out winter plants of the prairie WITHOUT any birds. But someone kept flying through every time I took a picture. So I chose one with more Sandhill Cranes to share with you (vs. Vultures).
Wild bison walking through brown winter prairie along Cone Kikes Trail, Paynes Prairie State Park, Florida
Well, hello there! Bison on the trail.

On my way back towards the parking lot on my last walk during this particular Paynes Prarie visit (there surely will be more), I suddenly saw a dark hulking shape behind a curve on the trail. It moved and stepped out onto the trail: one of the wild bison roaming the large state park!

How much I wanted to see and capture one suddenly paled in comparison to the realization that I was all alone on a otherwise deserted trail and that a provoked bison had fairly recently attacked a woman in Yellowstone National Park. Suddenly I didn’t just feel humbled by the presence of this big wild animal in its world where I was just trespassing, but I was actually a bit scared. City girl after all. I took a few super fast photos, made an even faster calculation to step off the trail and into the muck on the side that didn’t seem to have gator holes (just lots of bison tracks) and started telegraphing “please don’t come over here, please just keep walking past me”.

The bison started walking on the path again, walked slowly past me and then turned to the side with the gator holes and disappeared in-between the tall prairie grasses and shrubs again.

Wild bison walking through brown winter prairie along Cone Kikes Trail, Paynes Prairie State Park, Florida
Bison walking through Paynes Prairie.

Of course, I was never in any danger – because I’m not an idiot and won’t walk up to a wild animal much larger than me, nor to a smaller one that might get frightened by me.

Image(s) from this blog post directly available for purchase as wall art:

Those Pinterest Images…

Paynes Prairie State Park in Florida, USA.
Paynes Prairie State Park in Florida, USA.

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