La Chua trail : a taste of Florida wildlife

By Sunday, 20th we had already completed one part of our collection objectives in Citra. So we decided we could actually take the day off. Rob recommended we go to La Chua trail, and so we did. It had rained on the Friday, but the weather this Sunday morning was hot and beautiful, with still a lot of moisture from the previous days. Actually, we found out our rental car was really dampened on the floor carpets and was started to stink a little. So we used Gaël’s rental car, which was much nicer. La Chua trail was really next to Gainesville. It is part of Paynes prairie, which is a large flood plain, very noticeable when you arrive at Gainesville from Orlando by the I75. The trail itself is an elevated boardwalk above basins that are drained by a sink. Of course, we went there because we wanted to see some alligators.

When we arrived at the park, we immediately started to take pictures from all kinds of butterflies and insects. But when we started to take the boardwalk, all eyes were trying to find the gators.

Along with a couple of unidentified snakes – much to Marie’s angst- we spotted a cute immobile baby gator basking on the sun below the walkway among the lilies.

But that’s really when we arrived at the end of the boardwalk, where there is an observation platform, that we had our first good view of a basin filled with immobile as well as swimming alligators.

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That is really a strange feeling to walk by large hidden predators. I mean, I walked in bear areas before but actually never saw any. Same for other dangerous animals such as vipers. You make enough noise, they go away. This subtil fear-tainted feeling I was having reminded me of a day at sea, when I was a kid. We used to spend our family summers in Cerbère, a remote rocky coast village by the spanish border, and go swim with the kids in the large and small coves of the Mediterranean sea. That one day, at the main beach, I was swimming with my brother and some friends a few meters away from the shore, when I had this intense feeling that something big was also near me in the dark water. Because it was a rocky coast, the water is rapidly deep and you can’t quite see your feet. It turned out I was right : there was a big animal among the swimmers that day. A solitary « ambassador » dolphin emerged to everyone’s surprise and started to interact with people. That day was really nice, because the dolphin stayed a while to play with the kids and let itself being touched, only a couple feet away from the beach. But the one thing I remember clearly, even now, was this sudden anxiety when you find out you’re next to a very large and powerful animal. And that you’re on his turf. This same excitement, I felt on La Chua trail.

Where the boardwalk ended, we decided nonetheless to advance a little more on the path that was now following a levee between two basins. But supposedly there were also roaming bisons nearby according to the post signs at the entrance of the park, as well as some written observations by earlier hikers. So we had to continue, right ?

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It turned out we  quickly realized that on both sides of the levee, among the grass, there were several alligators, some of them so advanced on the path, we wondered if we could go around. One was showing its tail, so we passed him, letting 2-3 good meters between him and us.

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The path was getting muddier and muddier. We arrived at a clearing where a huge gator was sideways on the levee. To go around him, we had to walk in front of its maw. It didn’t move, but opened its mouth wide as we walked by. It was really starting to become unsettling on this path…

A little tensed maybe, we arrived at a place where the path was completely flooded. That’s when I saw Marie starting to run back at the same time I heard a huge splash a couple of meters in front of me. We apparently had spooked a huge gator that thought we were too close for comfort. I was thinking the same about him.Still a little bit shaken by the realization, that only Marie would have survived if the gator had decided to attack us rather than flee – Gaël and I stayed frozen all along while she ran super fast in the opposite direction – we decided it was a good time to head back on the wood planks. We took a few pictures of a group of herons fishing and returned where we came from.

We said Hi to the BigMouthGator, passed around the turned around one and finally arrived in the drier, safer parts of the trail. Relieved, our entomology driven team started to look around for insects and we found a few nice ones, that I will describe in the next post.

All photographs by Marie, Gaël’s phone and Nico’s phone. Special credit to Marie who took the time to edit her pictures and letting me use them for this blog. Additional footage below :

 

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