Cranes over Paynes


Thousands of sandhill cranes take flight near the LaChua Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on Wednesday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 at 11:56 p.m.

Leave it to the sandhill cranes, and a few whoopers, to put on a show.

Thousands of them are amassed along the La Chua Trail in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park in plain view, gurgling away while they munch on vegetation and the occasional bug.

Sometimes they get a bug of a different sort and take off, hundreds at time, to fly a short distance and resume feeding. For the human visitors who have been flocking to the trail to see them, it's as thrilling a sight in the Florida sky as a shuttle launch.

"I live in Georgia. I get so excited when we have four come across," said Patti Locke of Kennesaw on Wednesday morning. "This is just amazing."

Added park biologist Jim Weimer, "Slightly beyond cool, isn't it?"

Usually 1,000 to 2,000 sandhill cranes winter in the Gainesville area. Typically, they spend the day rooting up food at agricultural areas and then fly to the prairie at night to roost in the safety of knee-deep water.

But this year it's estimated that 5,000 cranes are wintering here and because of an ideal water depth, many of them are spending their days along the La Chua Trail, including an open area at a viewing platform at the end of the trail.

"They are spread out all along Alachua Lake. There are lots and lots of them, and that tells us something about how much water there is," Weimer said. "When there is no water or the water is too deep, they don't use it so much, or they will be there but they will be further from the platform. We have just a fortuitous coincidence of water levels and the cranes. A thousand cranes is a lot of cranes. Five thousand cranes is really a lot of cranes."

While the area has a small population of year-round resident sandhill cranes, the vast majority of those here now are northern birds who winter in Florida. Some can usually be seen feeding in University of Florida cattle fields on Williston Road. Pastures along County Road 225 around Evinston are also a favorite hangout.

At Paynes Prairie, they are often heard but not seen, hidden by tall vegetation.

It's the numbers and visibility of the cranes that is creating a treat at Paynes Prairie this year. And providing an extra thrill are some whooping cranes.

Whoopers are an endangered species. They are being reintroduced to Florida with the help of ultralight aircraft, which lead young birds on the migration route. Ideally, they make the annual trip on their own after that. Returnees have been in the region in recent winters.

Two whoopers were spotted among the sandhills on the La Chua Trail Wednesday morning, standing out as taller and white among the shorter, gray sandhills.

A couple bird enthusiasts on the La Chua Trail on Wednesday had their first sighting of a whooper. For others, it was a second sighting, but still neat.

"It's exciting," said Carol Wooley of Gainesville, who had seen whoopers near Waldo in the past.

Patti Locke and her husband, Simon, were first-timers. They saw a pair earlier in the morning.

"They told us yesterday there were whooping cranes out here, but we got here too late," Simon Locke said. "We were walking out here this morning and it was foggy but out of nowhere, like on cue, two of them flew right over us. It was a big deal. It was too good to believe. This has been quite a morning."

Weimer said whoopers were likely some that were initially led to Florida by ultralight to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Citrus County.

But instead of returning there on their own, they fell in with the sandhills for safety and familiarity.

"The whoopers said, ‘Sandhills — I'm going with them.' And they have been with the sandhills ever since," Weimer said. "The beauty of it is that they don't have to read the books, and they are not required to meet our expectations. They are going to do what they believe works for them."

The cranes usually begin heading north in February, Weimer said. He added it's likely the birds will be along the La Chua Trail until then. The trail begins in the park entrance off SE 15th Street.

Contact Cindy Swirko at 374-5024 or at swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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