On January 5th I met up with Gainesville Birder Rex Rowan, to go birding along the Sweetwater Dike area of Paynes Prairie State Park. The Sweetwater Dike Trail is an offshoot of the well-known La Chua Trail. Rex and I met at 11:10am and began our hike. There had been an Ash-throated Flycatcher reported along the trail recently, so that was our primary goal – although I also wanted to add some more birds to my year list! The weather was great for birding – a light wind, warm, sunny, and clear blue skies. We started off by searching for sparrows at the edge of the prairie. Swamp Sparrows, Song Sparrows, White-throated, and Savannah Sparrows were very abundant but the highlight was a group of 12 Vesper Sparrows and a single Field Sparrow. As we continued out into the prairie things were looking good, especially since one of our first birds after turning onto Sweetwater Dike was a beautiful American Bittern foraging down in the ditch.
As we continued walking down the trail we continued to pick up some good birds – Common Gallinules, White Ibis, Little Blue Herons, and both subspecies of Palm Warbler were foraging along the trail, offering good photo opportunities. At one point we encountered a small, mixed foraging flock of passerines that held both subspecies of Palm Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and an Orange-crowned Warbler that was foraging on the floating vegetation covering the water down in the ditch. It was very strange to see an Orange-crowned not crawling around inside a shrub, but instead out in the open and foraging on duckweed.
Farther along the trail we could hear a Sedge Wren calling from suitable habitat, and also flushed a Wilson’s Snipe from along the trail. The trail then left the prairie habitat and entered a stand of young trees. This is where the Ash-throated Flycatcher had been seen. As we walked through the forest, we picked up White-eyed Vireo, Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Long story short, we couldn’t find the Ash-throated Flycatcher and then we had to start walking back so I could pick Anna up from work.
On our walk back, we saw many of the same species we had already seen although we got really great looks at an adult Red-shouldered Hawk and also a very lightly-marked adult Red-tailed Hawk. Back at the parking area, we could hear a Barred Owl calling nearby.
I then went over to pick Anna up from work, and as I expected, she was jealous I had seen an American Bittern so well – so back we went to Paynes Prairie. Luckily, the bittern was right where we had left it a few hours earlier and as the sun set over the prairie, we watched the bittern catch frogs, minnows, and crayfish. A juvenile Little Blue Heron stood nearby, preparing to roost for the evening and we also found a juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, and both of us realized how lucky we were to be birding in Florida, in January. Here is a link to our full checklist from the day at Paynes Prairie.