By Peter Kleinhenz
Photos by Derek Dunlop
Last Saturday, Apalachee Audubon went a bit further afield for its field trip. The destination was the Gainesville area, the new home of several snail kites that have set up shop in some of its marshes and wet prairies. About 15 of us car-pooled down there early Saturday and first stopped at Sweetwater Wetlands Park.
Jacqui Sulek, conservation chapter coordinator for Florida Audubon, met us at the trailhead and gave us the back story on this incredible piece of property. Essentially, the city of Gainesville had the option of building a large water treatment plant or, for half the cost, could build a wetland to filter water. They chose the latter option and, now, a birding hotspot exists that draws people from all over Florida and beyond.
We hit the boardwalk and began scanning. Red-winged blackbirds and grackles made appearances, as did several young gallinules. I tried hard to turn these into more uncommon soras or king rails but eventually learned to just appreciate these cute relatives for what they were. My friend, Derek, had brought his massive telephoto lens but still made sure to search up close in case any critters were scurrying near the boardwalk. Our efforts paid off. A striped crayfish snake, a secretive species not frequently seen, was spotted basking on a clump of vegetation. But snakes weren’t the target and our eyes were trained upward from that point forward.
At an overlook towards the end of the boardwalk, we scanned for birds. A couple egrets and limpkins were located off in the distance, and plenty of both common and purple gallinules made appearances. Then, someone yelled out, “Look out there” and pointed towards a distant tree line. A bird flew over the water with a whitish tail, leading most of us to immediately think “Northern Harrier”. We then thought that our eyes may be playing tricks on us and that this was an osprey. Both options were incorrect.
It wasn’t until the bird sat on a tree limb that we confidently identified this raptor. The orange legs gave it away. We were looking at a snail kite!
We meandered around the outer trail, admiring close-up sandhill cranes and limpkins. Our overall goal, however, was to get a better look at the kite. We eventually reached the ditch across from the trees where we had seen the kite earlier. After a brief period of waiting, not only one but two snail kites flew towards us. We observed one repeatedly dive down to snatch snails and another later joined the fun. We all were able to get very close views of these rare birds, an uncommon feat given their usual habitat of flying out over inaccessible marshes.
All of us were thrilled and I think I can speak for all of us when I say I’m thankful that a place like Sweetwater Wetlands exists. Nine individual snail kites now live in Alachua County, with at least two occupying a wetland that didn’t even exist not long ago. What a treat to see these birds so close to Tallahassee. Maybe one day they’ll call Leon County home.