As I look out the window, we are experiencing our first spring snowstorm. During winter, it is easy to think back to warmer travels.
This year, my favorite Florida stop was to an area called Sweetwater Wetlands Park, on the outskirts of Gainesville, Fla. In the late 1600s, Paynes Prairie was the home of La Chua, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida. Two hundred years later, Seminole Indians occupied the area, and the prairie was named after Chief King Payne. In the 1930s, ranchers dug a ditch to drain the prairie and create more grazing areas. Over time, urban runoff created too much nitrogen levels in the Alachua Sink, a local lake in the water aquifer. This Sweetwater Wetlands Park was created in 2009 to assist with water management to the vast Paynes Prairie, as well as allow people to connect and get closer to nature.
This year Florida was chilly ... even for us northern folks. I don’t know if I saw a day that reached 60 degrees. I recall the three of us birders were fitted with several layers of outerwear, cap and gloves as we rounded the ponds.
In typical Florida fashion, waders were everywhere. Great blue herons, little blue herons, tricolored herons and a green heron were well represented. A black-crowned night-heron was spotted skulking in the cattails. After a good view for a few minutes, it disappeared back in the tangles.
A flock of tree swallows was lined up on a fence, waiting for the air to warm before foraging. A few individuals with brilliant blue-green plumage were skimming the water surface for food in their natural grace. There was barely a ripple on the water as they swooped by and snatched a morsel.
I noticed on the far side of the particular pond we were surveying that someone was in a full jog over to a group of people. In the birding world, that means a good bird has been spotted. However, in our case, I already knew what the bird was; it being reported several times. Birding is fairly easy in winter, because the good birds settle in for the duration of the winter months until it is time to migrate back to whatever marvelous world they travel to for breeding. In this case, the bird was a European shorebird called a ruff.
This medium-sized wading bird breeds in the shallow marshes and wet meadows of northern Eurasia. Quite similar to our yellowlegs, it is beige, has a long neck, pot belly and orange legs, rather than the yellow of their counterparts. Fairly non-descript, but rare, nonetheless. Eventually, we made our way over to see the bird in a flock of the very familiar dowitchers that occur in our state.
Oblivious to our presence, the flock of dowitchers, least sandpipers, killdeer and ruff minded their business moving back and forth feeding on invertebrates. I could hear camera shutters all around as people soaked in the view.
Some may recall a few years ago a male ruff caused quite a stir east of Bismarck during its springtime flight; so this wasn’t my first. I am sure it was for the people I was able to point out the bird. Soon enough, I bid farewell, and I wandered away back to Bismarck. And about now, I am sure that bird will embark on an eventful migration of 3,000 miles to resume breeding. Maybe we will meet again at the same location next winter.