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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Trip Report: North Central Florida

Well, 2020 started off on the right foot, adventure-wise! Myself, along with my husband, ended up driving a bit over 3,600 miles in three weeks over the winter holidays that had us back home the first week of the new year. As it was a family-centric trip, I don't have much in the way of new images to share. But I do have some, for I cannot go weeks without shooting anymore. So I made it so I had two days during our three week tour of the East coast (NC-FL-MD-NC) to photograph.

The majority of my shooting came from my childhood town of Gainesville, Florida. Home to the University of Florida, I grew up roaming the pine-scrub forests and swamps that surround the town. Paynes Prairie State Park was a frequent recipient of my curious wanderings and I even used those trails to get in shape when training for the Air Force.

On days I wasn't up for a 30+ minute drive to one of the prairie trailheads or further afield explorations, I would visit a bit of a hidden gem, Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. A beautiful park with about two miles of easy walking trails, Kanapaha is a peaceful place for photography as they have so many different gardens in one. It also borders Lake Kanapaha which provides a glimpse of wild Florida and the nature that calls it home.

Both these areas I had the pleasure to revisit and photograph in December, joined by my mom.

Kanapaha Botanical Gardens

As with many botanical gardens, Kanapaha has many unique collections. Everything from herbs and cactus, to a wonderful bamboo forest and palm grove. About one third of the property features a water garden as well. The property hosts all sorts of events, both public and private. For me, this is always a great way to spend an afternoon outside without much effort.

Below is a collection of images I took during my latest visit. They majority of them are creative abstracts with a few macro and wildlife images for good measure.

Paynes Prairie State Park

This is my home; the park that I spent countless hours exploring when growing up in the area. So it was really important to me that I get back out on the land and see how things had changed since my last visit over five years ago. I was not disappointed. Mother Nature had reclaimed many of the prairie trails over the last several years as Florida got more than her fair share of rain. Much of the prairie now stands under several feet of water and the berm trails that used to stand several feet above the marsh, allowing hikers to look down upon mother alligators sunning as they keep a watchful eye on their young, are now all but nonexistent.

Ecological changes in the form of wildlife have also taken place. While snails have always been common to the moist habitats Florida provides, there has been an explosion of invasive apple snails from South America in the prairie ecosystem since my last visit. This was a startling discovery to see just how numerous they had become when there were not any just five years ago.

Climate change, along with the invasion of the apple snails, have brought along other species as well. The endangered snail kite, which until 2016, had not been sighted in the county for over 20 years, now is nesting (as of 2018) in small numbers on Paynes Prairie. The afternoon I was out there, I was thrilled to be able to witness at least five different individual snail kites hunting and had one landing on a perch within 20 feet of me, allowing for the intimate portrait shots seen at the beginning of this article and below.

Along with the snail kites another bird has moved into the area to feast on the snail plenty. Limpkins, a medium-sized wading bird, are native to Central and South America with parts of Florida being considered the most northern part of their range. Traditionally, the number of limpkins found on the prairie were only in the single digits, however, in recent years, the counts are in the hundreds. Side note: these birds have even been spotted in parts of southern Georgia and Louisiana in the last few years, suggesting that their range is now expanding with the changing environment. So I was able to photograph several of these unique birds and saw many more spread across the aquatic vegetation blanket that covered the marsh.

Funny enough, my original purpose for going to the prairie was to capture the Sandhill cranes that overwinter there. While we heard lots of them, due to the inaccessibility of the prairie trails, I was only able to get in flight shots as they cruised overhead under overcast skies. Given more time, I did see them at several other locations around the area, but was unable to stop for the photo ops. Sad day.

So for birders and wildlife lovers, Florida seems to only be getting better and better. Anyone up for a photo adventure?

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