Welcome to Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Florida. This marshland park is dotted with overlooks. Let’s see what we find.
This young Common Gallinule is nearly grown.
Although gallinules may occasionally eat insects or snails, they’re primarily herbivores. This bird is managing the habitat by consuming Hydrilla verticillata, an Asian plant sold to home aquarists in the 1950s that has spread throughout the State.
Hydrilla grows and reproduces rapidly. It can survive in water only a few inches deep or in bodies of water 20 feet or more in depth, with little sunlight. At the water’s surface, it forms a dense mat that outcompetes native species, impedes boat traffic, and lowers oxygen levels within the water.
These chicks are a bit younger. Their bright orange bills and brownish feathers identify them as gallinules. The American Coot, a similar species, has black feathering and a white or gray bill. The older bird looks too young to be their mother. However, daughters from previous seasons sometimes attend nests and the young.
There are two trail loops at Sweetwater. The red bridge guides us toward the longer loop, which is 1.6 miles around. Increase the length of your walk by taking the one-third mile cut-through and making a figure eight. The red bridge is a great place to spot alligators in the spring. Let’s look around and see what we spot.
Although the Little Blue Heron is known for eating fish, it also eats insects, amphibians, and small reptiles, including snakes.
And speaking of snakes, we find some Watersnakes. These animals are often mistaken for venomous Water Moccasins. However, their body is thinner, the pupils are round, and the head is smaller and blends in with the body.
The trail loop here is raised and circles through the wetlands.
We’ve had heavy rains this summer, and today is overcast. Although the trails are raised, sections are swampy nonetheless.
Rivulets course the grassland, searching for one of many ponds.
Cattails stretch skyward. These plants absorb toxins in the water and keep the wetlands clean.
Each brown head produces over two hundred thousand seeds. A variety of songbirds use the soft white fibers to line their nests.
A walk through a Florida marsh isn’t complete without alligators.
Here and there along the water’s edge, orange cords warn visitors to keep their distance. Beyond the cord is an alligator nest.
And this nest has a few hatchlings. The camera can see into the darkness beyond.
At the base of the nest is mom, standing guard over her children.
There are many hatchlings on this nest. The gender of hatchlings is determined by temperature. Higher temperatures result in more males; lower temperatures females. It’s been a very hot summer. These youngsters appear alert and active.
The smaller trail loop is a mile around, with an optional half-mile boardwalk. This is a great place to spot wading birds, such as Tricolored Herons and White Ibis. Tricolored Herons can be distinguished from Little Blue Herons by their yellow bills and the white stripe down their throats.
A Great Egret peeks through the reeds.
Great Blue Herons are a common sighting. Because of their regal stature and entitled dispositions, I think of them as King of the Wading Birds.
The summer’s rains have brought flowers, such as this Goldenrod.
And where there are flowers, there are butterflies. This Viceroy butterfly visits a Bidens alba, or Spanish Needle.
This flower must be particularly tasty.
When the breeze picks up, the butterfly holds fast with Velcro legs, probing for one last sip.
Beyond the boardwalk is a path toward an overlook. Today, it’s a bit overgrown. This spot is a good place to see alligators 9 foot or longer. But today the vegetation is too dense to see them.
Sandhill Cranes are often seen at Sweetwater Wetlands, and they aren’t particularly shy. A small group of birds groom themselves on the trail and barely take notice as I film. I stand well away nonetheless, since they can use their long bills as weapons.
The marsh is teeming with wildlife, although much is hidden by the high grasses. Great Egrets are always edgy and are made uncomfortable by watchful eyes.
As I film, I’m started by a loud rustle of feathers behind me. [A Sandhill Crane has landed next to me, just beyond arm’s reach. I put some distance between us, then record its calls.]
Every day of hiking has its magical moments. But it’s getting late and it’s time to head back toward the parking lot. I’ll be back another day.