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.