Survey of Birds on Paynes Prairie Basin East of Hwy 441
January 22, 2024
by Debbie Segal
Photographs by Jose-Miguel Ponciano and Debbie Segal
A bird survey is typically conducted on the Paynes Prairie basin using airboats during the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). However, high winds on December 17, 2023 when the Gainesville CBC was scheduled, precluded the basin-wide survey due to unsafe boating conditions.
Although not part of the Gainesville CBC, we rescheduled the bird survey for January 14, 2024 in order to census the winter bird composition on Paynes Prairie. Two airboats each containing a captain and three bird surveyors were launched from Sweetwater Wetlands Park. The Paynes Prairie basin east of Highway 441 was divided into two broad regions – the east and west regions. The dividing line extended from the (abandoned) La Chua Trail observation tower southward to the Bolens Bluff observation tower. Both airboats traveled slowly throughout the accessible areas of their region, stopping frequently to identify, count, and search for birds. The survey began about 9:00 am and lasted for almost five hours.
Very low rainfall and retreating water levels marked the spring and first half of summer in 2023. Expansive mud flats extended well out into the prairie basin until late June when the summer rains finally produced enough water to inundate the prairie. Low water levels during the first half of the 2023 growing season provided ideal conditions for shrubs to “encroach” out into the prairie basin in areas where typically inundated conditions would preclude their establishment. Consequently, the thick rim of shrubs such as Carolina willow, elderberry, and others that have extended out into the prairie basin prevented the airboats from reaching the more inland areas where previous surveys were conducted. Therefore, the bird survey was primarily restricted to the large central region of open water and the adjacent vegetated areas that contained herbaceous vegetation and sparce shrubs.
Although the survey area was somewhat restricted, 82 bird species were tallied on the survey (Table 1). Black-bellied Whistling Ducks were the most abundant species with 7,400 “whistlers” estimated from the multiple “clouds” of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that lifted up from prairie during the survey. Ring-necked Ducks were the second most abundant species with 6,000 estimated during the survey. The two other abundant duck species were Blue-winged Teal (1,400) and Green-winged Teal (1,330). Large flocks of teal, some which numbered over 400 individuals, were often encountered during the survey. Other ducks – Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard (rare), Mottled, Northern Pintail, and Lesser Scaup – were observed in far less abundance compared to the whistling ducks, ringnecks, and teal.
Sandhill Cranes were abundant throughout the prairie basin and were observed both in the shallowly inundated marshes as well as continuously flying over the basin. These birds largely represent the migratory subspecies of Sandhill Cranes that migrate south for the winter. The majority of the Sandhill Cranes will retreat northward in March, leaving behind the breeding population that remain here year-round.
Many other wetland-dependent species including American Coot, Common Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe, Anhinga, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, herons, egrets, and ibis were abundant on the prairie basin.
A relatively high diversity of raptors was observed during the survey and included those expected species such as Bald Eagle, Osprey, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, both Accipter species (Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks), Northern Harrier, and all three falcon species (Peregrine, Merlin, and Southeastern American Kestrel).
Two wetland-dependent bird species that appear to have recently declined are Limpkin and Snail Kite. While past surveys documented over 100 individuals of both species, only 38 Limpkins and six Snail Kites were recorded during this survey. According to Snail Kite experts, the notable drought and low water conditions on Paynes Prairie during the spring and early summer likely affected the production of apple snails. Although water levels rebounded in late June, there is a lag time before apple snails reproduce, grow, and reach an optimum size suitable for Snail Kites, and presumably for Limpkins too. Fortunately for Snail Kites, they have adapted to a fluctuating prey base that is heavily influenced by the hydrologic conditions and snail dynamics. Snail Kites tend to be more nomadic than most raptors as they respond to fluctuating prey base, are adept at finding suitable water conditions in other locations, frequently having large numbers of 1- and 2-year old first-breeders, and sometimes produce a second clutch if the first clutch fails.
Several rare species were encountered during the bird survey and included 23 Snow Geese (both juvenile and adult blue and white morphs) one Ross’s Goose, six Mallards, one White-faced Ibis, one Black-bellied Plover, one Brown Pelican (presumably the same one that was being seen daily at La Chua Trail), a stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher, and by far the most exciting discovery, seven Short-eared Owls that all flushed from the southwest area of the basin somewhat near the Bolen Bluff observation tower (Figure 1). Although difficult to see because of their nocturnal habitats, a Short-eared Owl has not been reported in Alachua County in several years, not until one was seen from the Bolen Bluff observation tower one month before, in mid-December, 2023. Presumably, that same individual was observed repeatedly from the observation tower at dusk and dawn. However, it wasn’t until this bird survey that we discovered more Short-eared Owls than the originally presumed single individual.
Water levels on Paynes Prairie receded again in the fall of 2023, and by late November and early December, extensive mud flats were once again present. Pools of water concentrated fish and other aquatic organisms, and consequently, attracted a large number of fish-eating birds. It was a common sight to observe 50 or more Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and American White Pelicans in the ponded areas where their food items were concentrated. Even large numbers of Roseate Spoonbills were attracted to the favorable feeding conditions on Paynes Prairie.
Likewise, extensive mud flats reappeared on the prairie in November and early December of 2023 and attracted an unusually high number of shorebirds. Coastal shorebirds not typically seen inland were abundant on the mudflats, including Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and American Avocet. When frequent high rains returned in late December, the mudflats disappeared along with many of the shorebirds. Consequently, the shorebirds documented during this survey were not extensive and reflected the more typical water levels in Paynes Prairie. The most abundant shorebird was Wilson’s Snipe, where over 30 were observed in one small muddy area that had been extensively uprooted by feral hogs. A few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Killdeer, Long-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper, and a single (rare) Black-bellied Plover were observed during the survey. Had this survey been conducted in December during the CBC when water levels on Paynes Prairie were low and mud flats were present, shorebirds would presumably have been present in much higher diversity and abundance.
While a relatively large number of species was recorded on this survey, and a high abundance of many of those species, the number of individuals is significantly under reported for almost every species. Several factors contributed to the underreported numbers. The airboats were greatly limited by the areas they could access so easily over half of the prairie basin was not surveyed. When large flocks of ducks rose up from the basin, our estimates were conservative and likely excluded the depth of birds that could not be viewed. And when those impressively large flocks of ducks filled the air, our attempts to identify and quantify those birds distracted us away from observable birds in other directions. Easily, the most under-estimated birds were the small birds that were hidden in the vegetation. Swamp Sparrow, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, and Palm Warblers are very common passerines that winter on Paynes Prairie. Yet to find those from an airboat is a daunting task that would distract away from recording a large number of more easily observable birds. Even the more visible flocks of blackbirds - both Red-winged and Boat-tailed Grackle – were surely underestimated as they foraged among the shrubs and other wetland plants.
The Paynes Prairie basin provides wetland and aquatic habitat for a diverse population of birds and other wildlife species. The many habitats present on the prairie – open water, shrubby wetlands, herbaceous marsh, muddy stretches, and more – attract a wide range of wetland-dependent species. As our brief bird survey suggests, the prairie basin is particularly bird-rich during winter months when so many cranes, ducks, wading birds, shorebirds, raptors, and others migrate to Florida. At Paynes Prairie they have an extensive wetland preserve that is managed for its natural resources and largely free of hunting and other disturbances.