Monday, April 11, 2016

A Beach, a Trail, Nature Rehab and a Citrus County Almanac

April 8, 2016
Here it is, mid-April. Upon returning to Canada and Arnprior at end of March, we made our way to Toronto for a family event. All of this in the context of a lovely temperate spring/summer in Dunnellon, Florida, returning to much colder than average conditions in central and eastern Canada. Wind, snow and temperatures hovering in the -15C (5F) range last night. Oh boy, springtime in Canada.
Our route home took us through the south and central Appalachians, where the Appalachian Spring (Aaron Copeland's music playing in the appropriate center in my brain) provided mile after mile of eye candy; first in South Carolina, where Dogwoods and Redbuds covered the mountains, then into Virginia, where Cherries replaced the Dogwoods

Having been way too busy and having so much fun kayaking and hiking through central west Florida, I now have the pleasant task of returning there and warming from memories.

Back on February 3, 2016, I went to Crystal River and followed the Fort Island Trail to Fort Island Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. This Citrus County Park does a great job of mixing nature and recreational use. The Beach and natural Gulf sand provide a great respite for bathers and we bird watchers alike! The warmth of the day encouraged me to don my sassy bathing suit.

This Black Skimmer joined Laughing Gulls in winter plumage on the beach.
Here you get an idea of the numbers of birds, many species, enjoying the beach along with a few humans.
Dunlin enjoying the sun, and below a Dunlin and a Piping Plover pose for me. Cute, huh?( I stop saying "eh" as soon as I cross into the USA, and I avoid using any word with an "ou" construct, such as doubt and about.)
Out on the rocks well-placed to protect the beach from the effects of waves and currents, an Oyster Catcher gives me the eye.
Miles Saunders, Media Relations/Marketing Specialist for Citrus County was also taking bird photos to aid in encouraging bird watchers and nature lovers to visit this lovely Florida county. This marsh, the rocks and much more, were planned and designed by the County to encourage all of those birds and other wildlife.  There is a large area with a boardwalk and fishing pier which permitted me to see a lot of Gulf fish species and the odd Dolphin. One of the more curious fish one may see in the shallows is a Batfish.
Thanks for taking this photo, of a most weird Snowbird, Miles!

Don't you just LOVE this pose by this Ruddy Turnstone.  I seem to find these birds all over. And the ubiquitous parking lot coastal bird, the Boat-tailed Grackle noisily surveys the territory (below).
The extended El Nino summer (until end of December) supposedly caused birds that normally stay further south to venture into central Florida, including many Wood Storks (above).  The Brown Pelicans always pose in their most distinguished manner.  This one (below) is in another park along the Fort Island Trail.

I then went to check out another special spot,the Cross Florida Greenway's Withlacoochie Bay Trail, close to Inglis, Florida. The Withlacoochie Bypass (canal) had many Red-breasted Mergansers (below 2 photos).

I noticed this Otter's noisy crunches as it fed.  I chattered at it and this was the response...a curious look at me before diving for more food (two photos below). 
More Nature Coast coming soon! Enjoy Spring 2016.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Way Down Upon the Suwannee....The Spy who Loved Birdwatching

Between January 29-31, 2016, I kayaked the Withlacoochee and Rainbow Rivers without falling out of the Kayak. The previously immersed Canon was put back into service. I do not know if the rice bag drying process can bring a human back to life, as one wag suggested. I expect it can be used to dry out a wet person dead or alive,  though.
The rivers along the central west Gulf of Mexico coast of Florida do create the natural world I have been exploring.  To the south is the short Crystal River, which was once similar to the Rainbow.  The Crystal River is much more "developed" and has lost most of its natural splendour.  People expect to see Manatees there, and not much else.  The Rainbow drains into the Withlacoochee.  It widens into Lake Rousseau before emptying via canal and natural river channel into the Gulf. A dam was built to maintain Lake Rousseau. The dam is both probably ineffective for its original purpose, and it is a barrier to the Manatees using the upper Withlacoochee and the Rainbow.
The next major river to the north is the Waccasassa, which I have yet to explore.  North of that is Cedar Keys, a series of islands which create a natural world reminiscent of the southern keys.  Another blog is intended to cover these two natural sites.
Going further north is the Suwannee River which drains the Okefenokee Swamp (which is really a bog!) at the Florida-Georgia boundary. By the way, Stephen Foster wrote a song about this river called "Old Folks at Home". Foster was a Pennsylvanian who also lived in Ohio and worked in New York City. He only visited the south once in his brief life, and never the southeast. Therefore he didn't know anything about the Suwannee. His original lyrics were about the Pee Dee in South Carolina. Suwannee (he spelled it "Swanee") sounded better! 
So that is why most of you recognize the Suwannee name and none of these other glorious rivers.  I expect to visit the Suwannee soon. 
All these names are probably aboriginal. Since the local First Nations have all disappeared, the name origins cannot be confirmed.  There are various hypotheses about each of their origins.
The kayak is a quiet unobtrusive means of approaching life on and around the rivers. The 3 basking turtles above and the larger turtle below are the same species: the largest of the Cooters, the Suwannee Cooter,  Pseudomys concinna suwanniensis. This is a rare turtle limited to the river basins mentioned above, and some smaller rivers in the centre and northern Gulf coast of Florida and Georgia. Among the visible field marks,  all four have light blue irises, black on the upper hind feet, and you can see the backward, light yellow"C" on the scales of the carapace of the turtle below. Compare with Pseudomys nelsoni, the Florida Red-bellied Cooter, also found in this region. I saw another two very large Suwannee Cooters basking with an Alligator on a log in the Withlacoochee. As I raised my camera to take the award-winning photo, I heard three large splashes. Oh well, next time. Suwannee Cooters grow to 17", and the two with the Alligator were close to that size.

Above, once again, is the Common Moorhen, or, I should correct that to Common Gallinule, Gallinula galeata. This common large member of the Rail family is also the most widely distributed member of that family. It is found in marshy areas up to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the summer, and through the US Southeast, the Caribbean, the US Southwest, Mexico, Central America, a large portion of central South America, Europe, and  Africa and in Asia right to the Pacific Ocean.                         

Isn't he pretty? The Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea,  like most of the wading birds, is a creature of habit. This has permitted me to find and get closer to this and other birds as they seem to be more likely to ignore my presence after repeated encounters. 
In the foreground on the left is one of the giant leaves of the Yellow Pond Lily or Spatterdock, Nuphar lutea, There are large mattes of these plants in both rivers. The giant yellow flowers are coming into bloom.  I will feature a few in the near future. In the left background is the base of a trunk of a Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum, which forms dense stands beside the rivers, and some grow in the Rainbow River. Like our Tamarack, the Bald Cypress is a deciduous conifer.  It has the unique feature of growing "knees", which are actually pneumatophores: knobs growing from the roots that aerate the roots, and that may help anchor the tree.  There are some Bald Cypress trees here with 5 foot diameters and tower well over 100 feet.
More familiarization and habituation permitted me the photo above and the  photos below. The photo above and the first three photos below are of a Red-shouldered Hawk (let's call him Red) that is nesting on the grounds of the Rainbow River Club. On our first dozen or so encounters, he flew off before I could snap a photo. Not this time! He graciously posed.  The last photo below is of a neighbouring nesting Red-shouldered Hawk to the east. There is another nest to the west. Every day in the last few weeks, I could hear all three males vociferously claiming their territories, as they are quite close. One day, the hawk above swooped down on the western male, as he came too close to Red's territory.  Loud screeches resulted, as the intruder skulked off. I saw the western male yesterday, but he didn't allow me to take a photo before skedaddling.  These Red-shouldered Hawks are all examples of the lighter coloured "Florida race".

Have you ever walked by some dense shrubs and heard what sounds like a cat "yowling"? If you have, you heard this common, yet rarely seen member of the Mockingbird family, the Gray Catbird. What a handsome fellow. Like his Mockingbird cousin, he can copycat! So before using a call to ID a bird in a thicket, listen for the cat-like main call of this bird. Yes, those are rust-red feathers at the base of the black tail.
 This Great Blue Heron, Ardea Herodias,  in the riverside marsh, was a perfect specimen in great lighting with a contrasting background.  I couldn't help myself.  Nice birdie!

The Spy Who Bonded with Me

My interest in spies and intelligence services was fed recently by Jan's birthday gift, the excellent story of the friendship of Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby, the notorious British double agent. There is a reference in the book to one of the top spies in WW2 era Britain being a birdwatcher.  This prompted me to do some more searching about the linkage of birdwatching and British spies.
One of the early heads of MI5, Maxwell Knight was an avid birdwatcher who got a job after the war as a natural historian with the BBC. He hired an illustrator named David Cornwell to illustrate one of his bird books.  This led Cornwell to be hired by MI5 for about 10 years.  He gave the spying up when his books, sold under his pen name John le Carre, became bestsellers.  Cornwell became good friends with Nicholas Elliott, whence many ideas for his books!  Elliott was also close friends with a British Naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming. 
Mr.Fleming also took up writing after his World War 2 spy service. A weekend birdwatcher at his home in Jamaica, he had written his first spy novel, and needed a name for his main character. On his table was a copy of  "The Birds of the West Indies" by.....wait for it......James Bond.  It is too bad I didn't have this copy of the iconic book "You Only Live Twice" given as a gift to Bond by Ian Fleming in 1964:
This may be why, in Britain, spies are known as "birdwatchers".  Read it for yourself here:

And the tradition continues.

Late in 2013, the PM of the UK named a new Director-General of MI5, Andrew Parker, described in the dailies as "a career spy and avid birdwatcher".

I learned back in the early 1980's about people in high pressure jobs being birdwatchers.  Two of the people I met birdwatching at the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge, who helped me to see my first Everglades Kite, were a rocket scientist from NASA and a top coronary surgeon from Washington DC.
Tune in next time for more birds, a plant or two, the Gulf of  Mexico and a gift of oranges at the Withlacoochee Gulf  Preserve.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Walking the Trails of Blue Run

January 10-19, 2016
Dunnellon, Florida
I have always wanted to walk a run or run a walk.  I have now done both.  I feel it is similar to driving in a parkway, or parking in a driveway. 
 I went for a 4 hours kayak trip up the Rainbow River on Saturday, January 16th. As it was the weekend, and it was 25C and sunny, the river was quite busy.  My departure was delayed somewhat as I managed to mismanage getting into the kayak and had an unexpected dip in the 22C river. Although warm, it is wet, and I was not in a bathing suit. On top of that, my digital zoom camera absorbed water (not a good thing for these digital electronic devices) and has yet to dry out.  Therefore, no long-distance bird/animal photos for the foreseeable future.

I did provide entertainment to staff member John, who regretted not having his video capture turned on for his cell phone. I imagine it looked like one of those America's Funniest(!) Home Videos. And what a good ambassador for Canada's kayaking supremacy!

For this and weather reasons, my 2.5 and 4 hour walks in the last few days have focused on botany and mycology. Though there were some very interesting bird shots before Saturday!

The Rainbow River Club is on 55 acres of bottomland, for the most part, wedged between the Withlacoochie and Rainbow Rivers.  In turn, it is next to a very large Florida State Greenway and Dunnellon's Blue Run Park, which features 3 very well planned and intelligently constructed nature trails.
 Several of my walks have started with a ramble around the large pond on the Rainbow Rivers Club property. This area is a Cypress swamp, which has "winter-dried" sufficiently for non-rubber boot walking.  One of the residents, above, a male Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga), had just emerged from a fishing trip and was drying its wings. A loud "kakakakkaka" told me there was a feeding Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).    The obscured red cheek stripe identifies this as a male.                   
 I got back in the path down to Blue Run Park.  I had seen a few of these trees (pictured above and two photos below, the last to show the leaves). This one was the largest, though not as large as the ones in coastal South Carolina. This is the southern subspecies of the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually a Juniper!(!!).
Mature southern red cedar in forests here are much taller than the eastern, and when mature, like htis one, have droopy branches. Here is a good paper on the subspecies:
To make things even more confusing, some biologists classify this plant as a separate species (silicicola). The US Department of Agriculture, and most others, classify this tree as a subspecies (Var. silicicola).  It does look different. Aside from growing a lot bigger than Junipers in our region, the leaves are lighter green, and are fuller, possibly because they are not continually ravaged by cold. 

 As I got down to the Rainbow River, some of the usual residents were going about their day. The Pied-billed Grebe(Podilymbus podiceps)  above and the Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias)  below, in the marsh.
 Then a VERY loud screaming cry came from another part of the marsh, from a bird only heard in one state, Florida.  It is unmistakable, large and exotic.  It reaches the northern part of its range in Florida.  Indeed it lives in and its cry seems to better fit the Amazon.
It is a Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), pictured below preening, immediately after its screams scared every other living thing.
Other birds were feeding in and around the Rainbow River:  A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)  below.
 An American Coot, Fulica Americana , is pictured above, and Great Egret, Ardea alba , hunts for fish, frogs and other marsh critters.
 What a constant thrill to see this stunning bird, White Ibis (Eudocimus albus ), in its natural habitat rather than on lawns or garbage dumps!  This one looks kind of miffed and surprised at my interruption.
 Fragile Forktail Damselfly, (Ischnura posita ), at least I believe so.  It is a bit darker than the ones I have seen. They are quite common in our area too, but you won't find them there this time of the year!!       Yes, the Forktail landed on the paddleboat.            
 A Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus surveys the scene, while a Great Egret, just to be different, looks the other way.
 I drove out to Crystal River and then, via Yankeetown, to the Gulf Coast and greeted by some expect seaside birds, like the Brown Pelican,  (Pelecanus occidentalis). Yankeetown is a shrimp boat port. This one had just entered the Gulf of Mexico (about 4 PM) to catch those incredibly delicious Gulf shrimp. While in this part of Florida, I easily resist the farm-raised imports in favour of fresh caught Gulf shrimp.
 Some familiar friends appear on the coast. We last saw these birds in Myrtle Beach in March 2015.  Above  is a Laughing Gull, (Leucophaeus atricilla) and below is a Willet (Tringa semipalmata).
 The next day, January 11, I drove north into Levy County  to the Goethe State Forest in search of a very rare Florida resident, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Leuconotopicus borealis (see above).  The State of Florida and attempting to expand the range of this rare species by placing birds and artificially enhanced habitat in likely places like Goethe State Forest.  As I began the search, I saw this very large shed snakeskin on the ground.  This also enhanced my vigilance as I walked along the trails.
 The ribbon and paint on the pine  indicate Red-cockaded Woodpecker nesting areas.  I was disappointed in my search.  Only a Brown-headed Nuthatch gave me some hope.  I will return at a later date.
 In honour of my new-found interest in mushrooms, I found this gilled mushroom freshly emerged amongst the fallen pine needles. Since I did not collect the specimen, I won't hazard an identification.
 The next few days, being cool, I hiked the trails at Blue Run Park (see the intro above).  Nature trails are marked and have excellent interpretive signs, which help to reduce your blogger's ID work!
The sign above goes with the shrub below.
 Below are two plants of interest. Widespread in Florida  the four-petaled white flower below is Innocence, or Roundleaf Bluet,  Houstonia procumbens, found only in the southeast USA.
 It seems everywhere I have been in the south and east, where it is sandy and dry, I have found Prickly Pear. The genus, Opuntia, has dozens of North American species, including over a dozen in Florida.
 Above, one of the perennially flowering most common flowers in Florida, Bidens, Bidens alba. Below, the state flower of South Carolina growing, and flowering, in January in Florida, Yellow Jessamine,  Gelsemium sempervirens .
 The Briers, genus Smilax,  grow all through the southeast.  There are 12 species of Smilax in Florida. Only a few are common, like the one pictured below, which along with several related species, grow as prickly vines.  The University of Florida tells us that "Smilax species are important because they can provide shelter and food for wildlife and have provided humans with medicine, food, and dyes."  This species, easily identified by its variegated, ovate, 3-lobed leaves is Smilax bona-nox, Saw Greenbrier.
 Oaks are the dominant deciduous trees of the Florida Nature Coast.  Therefore, with the help of the Blue Run Park interpretive signs, following is a short primer of some local important oaks. Interspersed are some photos and words about other species found in Blue Run Park. The above interpretive sign describes the tree in the two photos below.
 The two photos below show the Turkey Oak described above. It is a small tree.
 Above, the dominant Florida Slash Pine.  Below, the bark of the Slash Pine features rectangular tiles, often exceeding 6 inches or 10 cms. on the long sides, which are usually vertical.
Below, the two  photos below show what appears to be very large Turkey Tails (bracket fungus).  This fungus has pores underneath, not gills.
 One of the very large dominant oaks, Laurel Oak in two photos below. Amongst some Laurel Oak leaves on the ground was another newly emerged mushroom. (3rd photo below)
 Bur Marigold (Bidens laevis) a common marsh plant is seen above. Its cousin, Bidens, shown above, occupies dry land, while this plant spreads through marshes and other wet areas.  When I first spotted the flowers, I was reminded of our Marsh Marigolds, which is also gold, but otherwise is very different looking and a northern resident.
 Breaking from the oaks, I had to photograph the unique leaves of the Sweet Gum, some gold, some still green. The trunk is shown below.
 Although the photos below are probably a Mockernut Hickory, the Florida State Botanist was uncertain enough not to name it on the interpretive sign, since, in this area, hickories often hybridize.
 I was wondering if citrus would be found growing wild in the woods in this area, since I found many on the East coast of Florida. Sure enough, I have found many trees, including Seville, Clementines and  the ubiquitous Grapefruit. Spit out a citrus seed in a Florida forest and a few years later, a tree results.
 Though not as large, and fewer in number than in South Carolina, there are some Southern Magnolias scattered in the local forests. (photo below)
Much more to come. Stay tuned.