“It’s a Great Horned Owl!” I exclaimed, leaning over the wooden railing of the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park Observation Tower. From our raised vantage point, my husband had spotted the raptor going after prey on the ground. 50 feet off the ground, the overlook offered tremendous views of the multi-colored prairie itself, as well as exceptional wildlife viewing opportunities.
As we watched, the owl spread its gigantic wings (their wingspan can stretch to over four feet) and lifted off into the air, settling out of sight in the limbs of a tall tree facing the prairie.
When we checked the logbook in the Visitor Center, we found some other truly impressive sightings from the observation tower. Wild horses and bison were logged mere days before we arrived, and many of the 275+ species of birds recorded in the park can be seen here.
Still, we remained drawn to the owl. Quickly descending back to the ground, we walked across the long lawn in front of the Visitor Center to try to locate the Great Horned Owl once more. If left alone, I probably never would have found it, but my husband has a sharp eye and caught the tiniest of movements in the swaying Spanish Moss. Following his finger as he pointed, I saw the bird too.
Watching an owl is a mesmerizing experience. Great Horned Owls are large, with great yellow eyes and tufted ears. They live in Florida all year round, and given their preference for woods at the edge of large fields, it’s no surprise he favors Paynes Prairie.
In fact, when we returned to the visitor center to speak with Dave Hartley, a volunteer, he told us that this particular owl had been hanging around quite frequently, calling in sharp tones and looking for food. I couldn’t believe how cool that was: a resident Great Horned Owl!
Hartley told us more about the wildlife than can be seen here, from horses to bison to alligators. Because I was clearly a bird lover, he added: “We are right at 299 species of birds that have been spotted, our biologist is running around desperately trying to find that three hundredth bird!”
In our final stop within the park, we strode across a wooden boardwalk at the edge of Lake Wauberg. The wind blew stiffly, and the trees and Spanish Moss swayed back and forth in a steady rhythm. Above our heads, two Bald Eagles used the gusts to their advantage and soared far above the treetops, their signature white heads and tails glinting against the blue sky. We may not have seen all 299 avian species within the park, but any day I spot an owl and an eagle is an excellent day for me!