The weather was pleasantly cool and breezy; a good day for day-hiking. Since many trails in northeastern Florida remain flooded, I opted to walk the elevated trails at Sweetwater Wetlands.
Water levels being high, the park’s dry basins had filled. Alligators of all sizes took advantage of the expanded habitat.
One young gator amused visitors when it strolled across a path and settled itself in the grass. A few inches of tail remained on the walkway.
A group of college students stepped towards the three-footer, engaged in conversation. One man’s foot threatened to trod the tip.
“You’re getting kind of close to the alligator,” a companion remarked.
“What alli—“ He looked down then sidestepped into his group. “I almost stepped on it! I didn’t know it was there!”
“We were just talking about it!”
“I didn’t know what you were talking about…”
Further along, a dinosaur-sized gator eye me as he swam, then seemed to follow as I passed. Although I had no intention of approaching the water and could easily avoid him from the trail, I found myself a bit unnerved; reminded that predator and prey are fluctuating roles beyond an urban habitat.
I met a couple who inquired whether I’d seen “the babies.”
“Mmm, what babies?”
“The baby Sandhills. The ranger said there was a pair here with chicks.”
Now I’d be looking for “the babies” too.
I made my way to the boardwalk, where I took pleasure in other wading birds, including an anhinga with bright-blue eyeshadow. It sunned itself among pond vegetation and floating detritus. Once dry, it dove into the water then reappeared, flinging a Red-ear Sunfish between its yellow spears.
A Little Blue Heron foraged in the company of a Glossy Ibis. Another Little Blue said good-bye to its childhood, its white feathers showing patches of adult coloration. Soon it would be impossible to camouflage itself among flocks of Snowy Egrets.
I photographed Eastern Pondhawk dragonflies, which flitted about the boards. The males of this species are dusky blue, while the females are a luminous green.
Female Carolina anoles sunned themselves on the floorboards. Potential mates displayed on the railings above, with bobbing heads and expanded dewlaps.
I passed the couple I’d spoken with earlier. We talked a few moments before I made my way to the end of the boardwalk. And there I saw them! Two adult Sandhill Cranes emerging from the marsh grass, two chicks in tow.
I quickly retraced my steps to alert the couple, and together we prepared our cameras and waited for the birds to saunter down the trail.
I stood on one side of the walkway, where another woman soon joined me. The couple stood on the other. From behind the birds, another person spotted the chicks and quickened their steps.
The family was surrounded.
The birds stopped. The male raised his head. “The nerve!” he seemed to say.
“I think we’ll do better if we get to one side,” I said. I joined the couple, and the other woman followed.
“We have to stay 20 feet away,” said the woman. “It’s been posted.”
Easier said than done, I thought. That would mean stepping down the embankment and loitering near alligator-infested water. Although I’m aware that storks can use their bills as swords, I decided to chance birds over gators.
The woman left our group, and walked further down the path. “Twenty feet,” she shouted. A few minutes later she called again. “Twenty feet, guys.”
The rest of us stood just off the path, gifting the birds the trail.
As though accepting the invitation and copying our example, the birds went to the opposite side of the trail and walked in the grass. Cameras clicked as they meandered along, pushing their bills into the soil.
A silent parade of visitors fell along the path. Each person politely waited for a chance at family photos.
Eventually, the birds returned to the pond, where the chicks dozed on a mudflat and the adults probed for succulent morsels.
As I continued my walk, a small group of people watched something from the trail. A marsh rabbit nibbled new sprigs of grass.
These are the glorious green days! And, in spite of searing sunburn, leaving the trail was difficult. The marsh has come alive. But it is a long drive home and some months lie ahead before birdsong falls to the crackle of leaves. The celebration will continue another day, but now it’s time for some aloe.