By Pat Foster-Turley
April 14, 2022
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve given you readers a local trip idea, and now I have another to share with you. Actually, I’ve written columns about this place for many years in the print local newspaper I used to publish in weekly before they rejected my writing style, but now it’s time to tell you folks about this place too.
Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville is amazing! This nature reserve is full of wildlife but it is manmade, using reclaimed water from the City of Gainesville which serves to restore natural water flow to formerly drained parts of nearby Paynes Prairie State Park and to improve water quality in the Floridan aquifer. This restored wetland is chock full of alligators, frogs, snakes and a diversity of birds–most of which are now missing in our own backyard retention pond.
Unlike a retention pond surrounded by concrete and roads and houses and toxic run-offs of pesticides and herbicides this area has retained and even enhanced its natural character. The development of this 125 acre wetland has even brought new species of birds to the Gainesville area. Apple snails have proliferated in the swamps and now limpkins and snail kites have discovered them, and are often here to entertain avid birdwatchers from all over.
I visit this place often, just about every time I go to Gainesville to visit friends, and I always find something interesting to admire and photograph. On this particular visit, of course I saw alligators– some very large ones were basking on the lawn right beside the pedestrian walkway. And, of course I saw limpkins, and ducks, and purple and common gallinules, and herons and egrets and osprey and more.
As usual though, there was a something special about this visit. A pair of sandhill cranes was strutting all through the area, showing off their two young chicks. I sat on a bench to watch the crane family passing by. One gal got even closer. Before the cranes got there she had settled herself on the lawn with a long telephoto lens that it turned out she didn’t need at all. The birds walked right past her, nearly touching her stretched out legs as she sat still with her camera clicking. So I started clicking too—pictures of her with the birds. Afterwards I talked to her and sent her an email with these photos. I’m sure these will be proudly displayed at her end. It’s not often you get such a close encounter with wildlife and photos to prove it!
Back at my own backyard pond things are not going as well. The retention pond is indeed “retaining” all the pollutants from the surrounding yards and houses and roads and much of the diversity of animals and plants has disappeared. All the duck potatoes, pickerel weeds, and other broadleaved flowing plants I spent years establishing in this pond are now gone—killed by the herbicides spread liberally on all the surrounding lawns that then wash into the pond. There aren’t even any frogs or dragonflies.
But one thing that has become a charming annual ritual is the return of Mother Goose and her mate to set up their nest on the outflow of the pond. This year again the pair started nesting, even though their nesting area has now become barren of vegetation that neighbors have removed from the area for whatever reason. But still they persevered and Mother Goose was attached to the nest while her mate stood guard.
But then came the rains. Last week many of you probably remember the big lightning and rain storm that woke us up one night. Our rain gauge recorded five inches of rain that night. The outflow from the pond failed to drain, and alas the pond water got so high that the goose nest was totally submerged. When the water receded one goose went back to the nest area and poked around a bit, then lost interest. The eggs were gone, or dead, but whatever, there was no new family coming for this pair this year. The pair of geese is still hanging around the neighborhood, feeding on the grass in people’s front lawns, but they have not returned to the pond.
It is getting very depressing for me to look at our dead pond, but I am thrilled that Sweetwater Wetlands is not so far away. With new bypasses around Baldwin and Starke it only takes two hours to get there from here. Check it out for a day visit or even an overnight in Gainesville and you won’t be disappointed. For more information see https://www.sweetwaterwetlands.org/.
Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]