Posted by: soniahs | October 28, 2010

Hiking Paynes Prairie Preserve

It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I should try to get something up here… I did pass my first candidacy exam (yay!), and am getting ready for exam #2 right now (on the public understanding of science material I blogged about earlier). I’ve also started to working on my reading for my last reading list, so I’ll be starting to post those summaries shortly.

For now, I’ll mention my excursion last weekend to Gainesville, to Paynes Prairie Preserve. This is a state park with a wide range of habitat, including oak uplands, pine flatwoods, and the eponymous prairie. Which was actually quite shrubby, rather than grassy, which surprised me. I was mainly three looking for birds, and the visibility was really limited by the head-height vegetation. But there were definitely a lot of birds around. Overall, it was a great day- not too hot, sunny but shady in the woods, and a light breeze.

I hiked on two trails: Cone’s Dike and Bolen Bluffs. Cone’s Dike goes through oak forest before heading onto the prairie proper. I did see a lot of birds, and a few deer. Bolen Bluff heads through similar habitat (though the different types of oaks), and terminates at an observation deck (more on that later).

Paynes Prairie is known for its feral horses, supposedly descended from Ponce DeLeon’s expedition to find the Fountain of Youth. In reality, they’re escaped from more recent ranchers. I did run into three of them- two mares and a half-grown foal. I was a little leery of approaching them closely, but other people were going right up to them taking photos. I will say that the ground contained copious evidence of horse passage (and also bobcat territory marking), which was pretty evident given that we have not been getting much rain lately. Yes, there was a lot of poo lying around.

In terms of birds, I saw a flock of turkeys, and a number of raptors (including a sharp-shinned hawk being mobbed by blue jays, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawk, and northern harrier). There were also a number of wood storks, some sandhill cranes calling, and a bunch of smaller species. I also saw a baby (pencil-sized) ribbon snake, and a more intimidating cottonmouth who was extremely casual about moving off the trail when it saw me.

from Wikipedia

The only jarring note was running into some UF students (or so I assumed from their Gator-themed clothing) having sex on the observation platform. I must assume they were there in order to be seen, because after all they were on top of a platform on a prairie. I must say that I’ve never run into people having sex in public while hiking before, and didn’t expect it in that visible of a spot- and the destination of the trail. I also wouldn’t have expected them to notice me, confer for a moment, then just keep on going (more loudly). Given that I was hiking alone, I wasn’t sure how to react, and just ended up walking back the way I came.

That episode made me think about the intimidation inherent in that sort of exhibitionism- it’s not like they were in a tent at night or in a really secluded area, so presumably they wanted to be seen, and were expecting not to be confronted about their activities. Or maybe they wanted a confrontation? Alternatively, they might get their kicks out of asserting their right to do whatever they want to wherever they want to, while sending a big “fuck you” to other people trying to use a public park. Would they have stopped if I had been a man? Or if I had been in a group? What if there had been a family with kids? What if I’d pulled out a camera and started taking pictures?

At any rate, it definitely made me conscious of my status as a woman hiking alone- not as scarily as if I’d been in a more secluded location, but enough to really be upsetting. Granted, there are much more dangerous situations to encounter while hiking while female, but this was plenty troubling. Confronting them wasn’t really a good option, but neither was waiting them to finish up before using the viewing platform to look for birds. So I turned around and walked away. A frankly shitty end to what had otherwise been a good day of hiking.

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