Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Dedicated exclusively to field herping.

Moderator: Scott Waters

Post Reply
User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 2nd, 2014, 2:00 pm

Fellow Herpers,

Two weeks from now, my wife is heading out of town for the weekend with our (soon-to-be) twelve week son, leaving me with a golden opportunity to herp in new locations. I live in Tampa, and since our son was born, I've only been able to go to a couple of local parks or the immediate area around my neighborhood when it comes to herping. Not complaining at all though - he's been a real blessing and I think I may find myself feeling lonely when they leave! I've already got plans for Saturday and Sunday (kayaking Myakka River and then Oscar Scherer State Park in Sarasota), but I'm contemplating taking Friday off and going to a new location for herping after dropping them off at the airport early in the morning.

Two locations that have piqued my interest are Payne's Prairie Preserve in Alachua County and Highlands Hammock State Park in Highlands County. Both locations are places I likely will not have the time to visit in the near future, and are approximately two hours from Tampa, meaning they are pretty much all-day trips. I hope to spend 4-5 hours at each before heading home to take care of our dog later in the afternoon. I'm sure people on this forum have been to one or the other, so I was hoping some of you could provide some input on how much you like the park, what to expect, or any other recommendations within a 2 hr drive of Tampa. Given that these are state-managed parks and conservation areas, I'm restricting my herping to what I can see visually from marked trails, roads, etc.

I appreciate any advice!

User avatar
Josh Holbrook
Posts: 2195
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 7:11 am
Location: Western North Carolina
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Josh Holbrook » May 2nd, 2014, 4:08 pm

If you aren't going to stay for sunset, you probably wont see too too much this time of year (It's been really hot during the day); that said, Highlands Hammock has a lot of shade, and the oldest Live Oak in Florida. If it were me, I'd go to a WMA instead where you can flip logs, dipnet and whatnot; but herp-wise if you're only there during the day they both probably have similar things to offer (Racers, anoles, and maybe a diamondback.) I guess HH probably has more Gopher Tortoises than PP.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 2nd, 2014, 4:21 pm

Josh Holbrook wrote:If you aren't going to stay for sunset, you probably wont see too too much this time of year (It's been really hot during the day); that said, Highlands Hammock has a lot of shade, and the oldest Live Oak in Florida. If it were me, I'd go to a WMA instead where you can flip logs, dipnet and whatnot; but herp-wise if you're only there during the day they both probably have similar things to offer (Racers, anoles, and maybe a diamondback.) I guess HH probably has more Gopher Tortoises than PP.
Thanks Josh! I should add that part of the reason for these two places is the natural beauty contained within them, so I guess herping isn't the sole reason for my visit - just a side benefit. If I see mostly turtles and gators, that's fine - beats being at work!

You're right though - it's that time of year where things are heating up, which is why I'm trying to get to either place around the 8 AM opening. Unfortunately I don't have much liberty these days with staying out for late-day herping. Best I can do is sneak out after they wife and kid are asleep for some frog listening!

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 2nd, 2014, 9:13 pm

LaChua trail is famous for its birds in PP. It also has a reputation for having awesome gators. I haven't been to the other location.

I second Josh though, checking out WMA and the like would probably prove more productive.

If you do end up choosing PP, PM me. I live right next to PP and may be able to help with some things.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 3rd, 2014, 6:23 am

captainjack0000 wrote:LaChua trail is famous for its birds in PP. It also has a reputation for having awesome gators. I haven't been to the other location.

I second Josh though, checking out WMA and the like would probably prove more productive.

If you do end up choosing PP, PM me. I live right next to PP and may be able to help with some things.
PM sent, check your inbox.

Thanks for the info so far. Does anyone have anything to offer on Highlands Hammock SP?

User avatar
Josh Holbrook
Posts: 2195
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 7:11 am
Location: Western North Carolina
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Josh Holbrook » May 3rd, 2014, 8:16 am

mtratcliffe wrote:
captainjack0000 wrote:LaChua trail is famous for its birds in PP. It also has a reputation for having awesome gators. I haven't been to the other location.

I second Josh though, checking out WMA and the like would probably prove more productive.

If you do end up choosing PP, PM me. I live right next to PP and may be able to help with some things.
PM sent, check your inbox.

Thanks for the info so far. Does anyone have anything to offer on Highlands Hammock SP?

What do you want to know? Some nice trailed through some Cypress swamps and old orange groves and Gopher Tortoises around the campground; and the oldest Live Oak that I already mentioned.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 3rd, 2014, 8:45 am

Josh Holbrook wrote:
What do you want to know? Some nice trailed through some Cypress swamps and old orange groves and Gopher Tortoises around the campground; and the oldest Live Oak that I already mentioned.
Are there a mix of trails and boardwalks? I get that impression from the state park page. And since I'll be driving two hours to get there, are there enough trails/sights to keep me occupied for 4-5 hours in order to make the trip out there worth the time? I guess hopping over to Lake June-in-Winter Scrub SP is always an option, too.

User avatar
Josh Holbrook
Posts: 2195
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 7:11 am
Location: Western North Carolina
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Josh Holbrook » May 3rd, 2014, 9:30 am

mtratcliffe wrote:
Josh Holbrook wrote:
What do you want to know? Some nice trailed through some Cypress swamps and old orange groves and Gopher Tortoises around the campground; and the oldest Live Oak that I already mentioned.
Are there a mix of trails and boardwalks? I get that impression from the state park page. And since I'll be driving two hours to get there, are there enough trails/sights to keep me occupied for 4-5 hours in order to make the trip out there worth the time? I guess hopping over to Lake June-in-Winter Scrub SP is always an option, too.

Definitely - lots of trails there. Nearby Lake Wales Ridge State Forest is also fun to take a drive through; neat looking habitat.

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 3rd, 2014, 9:33 am

If you came to PP, you also have San Felasco in the area, as well as a host of WMA's too. A glance at google maps will show you much green space is around G'ville. I've been to pretty much all of it, at least once.

User avatar
JakeScott
Posts: 689
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 4:26 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by JakeScott » May 8th, 2014, 6:13 pm

I'd choose anywhere but Payne's Prairie if you are wanting to see herps. It is an outstanding place to see mammals and birds, but herps (other than the ubiquitous alligator or Florida watersnake) are scarce. I've frequented that park for over 13 years. I go to photograph other things, besides herps.

Like Josh said, there are plenty of other, better, paces to go. Highlands Hammock I've only visited once, but it is pretty intriguing. But that's just from minimal experience.

Are you camping? If so, I'd chose some place like Ocala NF. It's a very underappreciated place and this year I've had some success in that forest.

-Jake

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 8th, 2014, 8:12 pm

I cannot disagree with Jake. I'd say PP is best known for its birds, not its herps.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 9th, 2014, 12:26 pm

JakeScott wrote:I'd choose anywhere but Payne's Prairie if you are wanting to see herps. It is an outstanding place to see mammals and birds, but herps (other than the ubiquitous alligator or Florida watersnake) are scarce. I've frequented that park for over 13 years. I go to photograph other things, besides herps.

Like Josh said, there are plenty of other, better, paces to go. Highlands Hammock I've only visited once, but it is pretty intriguing. But that's just from minimal experience.

Are you camping? If so, I'd chose some place like Ocala NF. It's a very underappreciated place and this year I've had some success in that forest.

-Jake
I was starting to lean towards Highlands Hammock because I like the idea of being mostly in shade in mid-May a lot better. I'll definitely be checking out PP in the future, and not just for herps. I really want to go for the landscape and habitat, though probably when it's not as warm out.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 20th, 2014, 5:54 pm

Trip report time!

Based on the advice given above, I chose to drive to Highlands Hammock SP for the day, with a stop at Lake Wales Ridge State Forest along the way. It was a beautiful day, with morning temps in the mid to upper 60s, with the afternoon highs in the upper 70s. My first stop was to get a view of Lake Weohyakapka. When I got out of the car to get a view of the lake, I heard some frogs calling from the flooded ditches that straddled the road to the boat ramp. Within these ditches I heard eastern narrowmouths (also saw their eggs), cuban tree frogs, Florida leopard frogs, Florida cricket frogs, and a single bullfrog. While I was hunting for a view of the frogs, two river otters took the opportunity to run across the road while I wasn't looking. I did catch a glimpse of them, but they escaped into the other ditch before I could snap a shot, and then they disappeared. Damn!

I got a few recordings of the frogs calling, plus a few shots:

Tadpoles

Image

Here's a closer shot...based on the number I saw, I'm thinking they are toad tadpoles. Is anyone able to provide a good ID?

Image

After this stop, I drove through the forest proper, and got a few more frog recordings, plus a lifer Florida cricket frog sighting

Image

I also saw some turkeys there, but didn't get a photo. Between Lake Wales and Highlands Hammock, I saw my third sandhill crane pair of the day, and they even had a young one with them! I had to stalk them through an orange grove to get a shot:

Image

Once I got to Highlands Hammock, I didn't see much as far as herps go, at least not initially. But I did have plenty of non-herp encounters!

These deer surprised me! I was walking on a boardwalk, looking on the opposite side, when I heard rustling and turned to see them just a few feet away from me. This may have been my first real encounter with a fawn.

Image

Image

There were lots of dragonflies and damselflies at the park. These are male and female ebony jewelwings, respectively. These beautiful damselflies are large, and flap their wings more like a butterfly would (slow and powerful) than what most damselflies do (rapidly). Note the telltale white spot on the females:

Image

Image

Now for some dragonflies. First up is what I believe to be a female great blue skimmer. If anyone knows their dragonflies, feel free to correct me, though I do have a great guidebook to help me with IDs.

Image

Immature eastern pondhawk male (the mix of blue and green colors are the biggest indicator)

Image

Here's what the females of that species look like:

Image

Female blue dasher (one of my favorite varieties, and one of my favorite shots from the day)

Image

And here's a male blue dasher (tough to ID, but the eye color and the stripes behind the head are the best indicators)

Image

Now for some herps! There were lots of pig frogs hanging out in the swamp.

Image

Webbing shot to verify ID (pig frogs have extensive webbing between their toes):

Image

More specimens:

Image

Image

Image

Image

I had almost resigned to not seeing any native lizards, as the brown anoles were quite abundant. But what I thought was just another brown at first glance was actually a pale, but beautifully detailed green anole!

Image

Image

I saw three that day, but only got decent shots of one of the other two.

Image

Also saw two SE five-lined skinks from a distance:

Image

Image

Only one snake on the day - a FL water snake sunning on a log in the mid-afternoon sun:

Image

One turtle - looks to be a peninsula cooter (too much glare!):

Image

And one juvenile gator!

Image

Image

And yet, none of those things were the highlight of my day. Had I chosen to go to Paynes Prairie Preserve, or had I not decided to stop and take a photo of a silly church sign on my way out, then I would not have saved this small gopher tortoise that was attempting to cross Florida State Road 66 while traffic was passing from both directions!

Image

Image

I was simply amazed to have stumbled upon this young tortoise attempting to do some very foolhardy. Thankfully, as I pulled over to the side of the road, the car immediately behind me swerved to avoid the tortoise. This guy was quite tiny - small enough for me to pick up with one hand. I moved him to the other side of the road (the direction he was heading) and put him under a barbed wire fence and sent him on his way.

Well, that summarizes my trip! I definitely recommend checking out the park, though you may want to avoid it in the summer as the humidity will be oppressive and the mosquitoes will be out in force with all the swamp water. Hope you enjoyed the photos!

Carl D. May
Posts: 362
Joined: June 2nd, 2011, 3:17 am

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Carl D. May » May 21st, 2014, 3:17 am

Nice trip summery with some very good photos too. It always makes me feel good to rescue a dopey gopher tortoise!

User avatar
BillMcGighan
Posts: 2310
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 8:23 am
Location: Unicoi, TN

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by BillMcGighan » May 21st, 2014, 6:33 am

I agree with Carl; a very nice summary of a very nice location.
Kudos for saving the Gopher. :thumb:





I also have to agree with Jake and Josh. The “herp beauty” of the prairie is mostly at night in the warm months.
I'd choose anywhere but Payne's Prairie if you are wanting to see herps. It is an outstanding place to see mammals and birds, but herps (other than the ubiquitous alligator or Florida watersnake) are scarce. I've frequented that park for over 13 years. I go to photograph other things, besides herps.
PP’s notorious years were before the preserve was established and before I75was built.
On my first visit, I was in speechless on a rainy April night, with the sheer quantity of commercial and research herpers, patrolling the Rt441 shoulders. The quantity of Waters, Ribbons, and Muds was overwhelming.

Those who knew the habits of the Kingsnakes found them regularly.

In the early ‘70s, I traveled across the prairie multiple times per day, and often stopped to talk to any herpers I saw. I often pretended to be a local, put on a central Florida cracker accent, and would ask stupid questions to find out the depth of the herper.

Once, I stopped for a man, who seemed about 20 yrs my senior, examining a watersnake, and after acting like a virtual idiot with questions, I realized I was talking to the venerable herpetologist, the late Walter Auffenberg!
I hoped he didn’t remember me if I ran into him up at the university.

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 21st, 2014, 2:29 pm

Like the pictures, and enjoy Bill's comments too, but I there is a hint of jealousy. I live about 10 min from the Prairie, and I always cringe a bit when I hear about how awesome it was. I still think it is a neat place, but goodness, why are there so few animals at this point? It's a protected area. You'd think it would be full of snakes. I cringe because I fear it will never return to its former glory.

User avatar
BillMcGighan
Posts: 2310
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 8:23 am
Location: Unicoi, TN

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by BillMcGighan » May 21st, 2014, 5:24 pm

why are there so few animals at this point? It's a protected area. You'd think it would be full of snakes. I cringe because I fear it will never return to its former glory.
I may be wrong on this, Noah, but I believe Rt441 has many pathway culverts, that reduces the road kills. Back then, good or bad, commercial collectors often dialogued with herpetologists and with the protection, dialogue was reduced, so stories of "glory" vanished.
Water levels may play into this also.


(Of course, it could be that all the Water Buffalo ate the snakes!) :roll: :lol:

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 21st, 2014, 8:22 pm

Stories of glory may have vanished with the eco-passage, but given the density of professionals and herp enthusiasts in the area, if PP actually produced anything noteworthy, I kinda figure we'd hear about it. I've been there more times than I can count, and all I've seen (in terms of snakes) were water snakes, 2 racers, and a yellow rat.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 22nd, 2014, 1:37 am

Thanks for the comments everyone! Shame to hear about how PP isn't as productive as it used to be in the past. Still, I hope to make it up there someday.

It's starting to get hot during the day down here in FL, so I'm a bit bummed that I probably won't see much for a while unless I go out at night. It's been dry, too, so the frogs haven't been calling as loudly. Once the daily rain showers arrive, I'll try to keep myself busy by cruising for calling frogs at night.

User avatar
BillMcGighan
Posts: 2310
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 8:23 am
Location: Unicoi, TN

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by BillMcGighan » May 23rd, 2014, 7:46 am

Stories of glory may have vanished with the eco-passage, but given the density of professionals and herp enthusiasts in the area, if PP actually produced anything noteworthy, I kinda figure we'd hear about it.
I guess from your experience, we can conclude that all the animals died out?

There are several more factors that canot, or should not, be discussed on an open forum, but let's just say the then/now differences may be a function of access to specific areas and timing, complicated by fire ants.

User avatar
Noah M
Posts: 2292
Joined: November 3rd, 2012, 6:00 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Noah M » May 23rd, 2014, 8:57 am

I guess from your experience, we can conclude that all the animals died out?
Not so much from my experience, but from what I have heard from others in the area with more experience. I have only been observing the prairie for 3 years, so that is not a long enough timeline to conclude anything really.

User avatar
Jordan S.
Posts: 90
Joined: June 6th, 2011, 4:03 pm
Location: Gainesville
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Jordan S. » May 29th, 2014, 7:20 pm

The tadpoles are Barking Treefrogs.

-Jordan Schmitt

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 30th, 2014, 8:28 am

Jordan S. wrote:The tadpoles are Barking Treefrogs.

-Jordan Schmitt
Great - thanks! That makes this my first sighting of them, though it's a shame I didn't hear or see any adults.

User avatar
Josh Holbrook
Posts: 2195
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 7:11 am
Location: Western North Carolina
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Josh Holbrook » May 30th, 2014, 4:03 pm

mtratcliffe wrote:
Jordan S. wrote:The tadpoles are Barking Treefrogs.

-Jordan Schmitt
Great - thanks! That makes this my first sighting of them, though it's a shame I didn't hear or see any adults.

What was the microhabitat. It's hard to tell from the photo, but they don't look like Barkers to me.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 30th, 2014, 4:57 pm

Josh Holbrook wrote:
What was the microhabitat. It's hard to tell from the photo, but they don't look like Barkers to me.
A flooded roadside ditch that stretched uninterrupted for several hundred feet. Behind it was a treeline and a forest - mostly pines.

User avatar
Josh Holbrook
Posts: 2195
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 7:11 am
Location: Western North Carolina
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by Josh Holbrook » May 31st, 2014, 9:49 am

mtratcliffe wrote:
Josh Holbrook wrote:
What was the microhabitat. It's hard to tell from the photo, but they don't look like Barkers to me.
A flooded roadside ditch that stretched uninterrupted for several hundred feet. Behind it was a treeline and a forest - mostly pines.
I'd probably go with gastrophryne then... It's hard to tell what the head shape is from the photos, but they look like narrowmouths to me, and a roadside ditch in Highlands would be too short of a hydroperiod for Barkers.

User avatar
mtratcliffe
Posts: 533
Joined: January 19th, 2014, 4:34 pm
Location: Springfield, VA

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by mtratcliffe » May 31st, 2014, 1:47 pm

Josh Holbrook wrote: I'd probably go with gastrophryne then... It's hard to tell what the head shape is from the photos, but they look like narrowmouths to me, and a roadside ditch in Highlands would be too short of a hydroperiod for Barkers.
That was my initial guess, but they had just laid eggs further down the ditch, plus the mouth parts look different to me.

User avatar
JakeScott
Posts: 689
Joined: June 7th, 2010, 4:26 pm
Location: Gainesville, FL
Contact:

Re: Payne's Prairie Preserve or Highlands Hammock State Park

Post by JakeScott » June 1st, 2014, 3:03 pm

Great series, glad you got to see some stuff. Anytime you save a gopher tortoise, it is a worthwhile trip.

The glory days of PP are only stories that I hear from old timers like Bill (haha) and Dick B. and of course Kauffeld's accounts. I was actually in G'ville just before they put the ecopassage in place and remember cruising 441 and seeing endless amounts of road mortality. I actually still do see some. In the fall of 2005 we were directly hit with 3 consecutive hurricanes/tropical storms. The water levels on the prairie were at the very top of the passage wall. I saw more snakes on the prairie that year than all other years combined. Almost every branch had a watersnake, cotton or yellow rat hanging out.

-Jake

Post Reply