Monday, March 23, 2015

Return of the Ospreys

Ospreys have returned from their South American wintering grounds. While some spent the winter in Florida, joined by a number of northern migrants, many of our summer ospreys headed to South America. On some of our local waterways, the returning birds have boosted the population considerably. Birders and nature lovers are thrilled with the arrivals; others have more tepid feelings.

For as long as humans have fished Homosassa, from the first Paleo-fishermen who cast bone fish-hooks and nets into the river 14,000 years ago, to modern anglers with computerized fish finders, one thing that hasn’t changed is the dumbfounded look on their face when an osprey casually snatches a lunker from the water nearby.

Early fishermen were convinced that ospreys had supernatural abilities. In The Battle of Alcazar, 16th century playwright, George Peele said fish “turn their glistering (sic) bellies up” for the “princely osprai.” Some people believed the birds fishing prowess came from substances in their feathers. This carried feathers as charms to ensure good fishing. In 1794, missionary/explorer George Henry Loskiel wrote that osprey flesh had oil that could be smeared on bait to make it irresistible to fish.

With time, people realized there was no magic involved--it was simply physical adaptations that gave osprey’s their uncanny fishing skills. But, even the world's finest minds didn’t always get it right. In 1760, Albertus Magnus asserted that ospreys had one webbed foot for swimming and the other had talons. It took the curiosity and marksmanship of Carl Linnaeus to get an osprey “in the hand” and see there were no webs. Instead he found a pair of highly specialized fish-grabbers with long, strongly curved talons and spiny toe pads to help grasp the fish. He also realized that one of the front toes could twist backward, giving extra grip with two talons facing forward and two facing backward.

Of course this doesn't mean people had never seen an osprey up close. They had. In fact, during the age of chivalry, ospreys were raised by falconers in hopes of training them to hunt. It was a short-lived experiment, however, because the ospreys had their own idea of how the game was played. While they were happy to go catch a fish, they wouldn't bring it back to their handler. Instead they would find a perch and eat it before returning to their "master." (I wonder if they did their trademark fly-over, just to annoy their handler.)

One Homosassa resident that has certainly taken note of the returning ospreys is the bald eagle. For countless millennia, bald eagles have routinely mugged osprey to steal their fish. It’s a familiar sight on our tours; an osprey flies overhead carrying a fat bass when suddenly an eagle swoops down and, in a flurry of feathers and talons, causes the osprey to drop its catch. The eagle then swoops down and snatches the falling fish from mid-air.

This predator-thug relationship has gone a long way toward staining the bald eagles noble reputation. In William Bartram’s notes about ospreys, his praise of the so-called “fish hawk” is matched only by his disdain for the eagle. In Travels, he states “This princely bird subsists entirely on fish which he takes himself, scorning to live and grow fat on the dear earned labours of another; he also contributes liberally to the support of the bald eagle.”

But of all the quotes I can cram into this brief missive, the timeliest comes from Audubon, who noted that in late February, “the fish hawk had only eggs …when the young of the eagle were large and fully able to fly.” This accurately describes the current state of affairs on Homosassa and other local waterways. While winter-nesting bald eagles are now teaching their youngsters how to fly and hunt, the returning ospreys are just getting started:, courting, nest-building and even a bit of fishing, ever-willing to take a moment to give us a fly-by to proudly show us their catch.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Born to the Purple

Spring is here and, once again, the forests and streams of North Florida are being “born to the purple.” In the days of the Byzantine Empire, when Empresses gave birth in a room called the Purple Chamber, the phrase “born to the purple” had a literal context. Emperors born in these royal birthing chambers were said to have been “born to the purple,” meaning they were born into royalty rather taking it by force or guile. These days, however, with birthing chambers (purple or otherwise) as rare as cucking stools, the quaint old saying is rarely used. But every spring, usually around mid-February, I find myself standing on a shaded path in the Ichetucknee hardwoods surrounded by purple Florida violets and wondering if it might be time to revive the old phrase.

Spotting the year's first violets is a welcome and reliable harbinger of spring. In the weeks that follow, every tour I lead will have a secondary (usually unspoken) purpose--searching for purple.  Outwardly, my quest is based by the fact that spring is purple's season in North Florida. Inwardly,  however, part of me wonders if Alice Walker might have gotten it right when she warned, in The Color Purple, that, “If you pass by the color purple in a field and don't notice it, God gets real pissed off." 

By the end of the week, my field notes recording what plants are blooming read like the log of a scavenger hunt:  Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) nested among the hardwoods on the rock bluffs of Ichetucknee, check; blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium atlanticum) among the low herbs on Ocklawaha’s damp riverbank, check;  pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in emergent, freshwater marshes everywhere, check; false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) on low, dry ground edging Ocklawaha and Waccasassa Rivers, check; vervain (Verbena brasiliensis), moss verbena (Glandularia pulchella), lyre-leaved sage (Salvia lyrata) and blue toadflax (Linaria canadensis) in the sunny meadows, check;  bay lobelia (Lobelia feayana) and butterwort (Pinguicula caerulea & P. pumila) in damp sundew meadows of the Waccasassa Basin, check; blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) on low, sunny banks of Silver and Chassahowitzka, check and check.

I spot most of these blooms while leading tours.  But some require a dedicated hike or paddle. If I want to see Trillium (Trillium maculatum), for instance, with its short bloom period and tiny range in our area, I have to quickly plan a hike out to the quiet corner of the Ichetucknee hardwoods where they are found. A few days and a two mile hike later, I will be crouched low on the ground and nosing my camera into a patch of half a dozen trillium blooms. If anyone ever walks up on me at such a moment they'll probably think I'm  genuflecting to some very important plant. They’ll be right. With their three-pointed, velvet crown perched high on their heads, these regal plants really are born to the purple . Check!

On a recent hike in the Ichetucknee Forest, I stopped by Blue Hole Spring where a plein air painter was performing her magic on a large canvas. She allowed me to watch as she delicately dabbed her brush into small blob of intense cobalt blue paste and then carefully swiped it onto the canvas. Being the season, my eye was drawn to the corner of her palette where she had smeared a small dollop of red pigment. Next to it was a dollop of blue. Carefully and with a sureness that spoke of an act done hundreds of times, she took a blunt, metal knife and sliced off a grape-sized piece of the blue paste and a similar sized portion of the red and swirled them together. She eyed the mix and then added a tiny bit more red, creating the exact hue she wanted. “That’s how purple is made,” she explained. “There is no true color purple. It does not have its own wavelength like true spectral colors, so you won’t find it in the rainbow or in that catchy acronym, ROY G. BIV, which scientists use for remembering the primary colors –red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.”  I’m envious that she can create it. No hiking required.

So, what is it about purple? What is it that prompts an otherwise normal river guide to embark on an annual pilgrimage and has inspired humans since the misty beginnings of civilization? Spectral or not, people have been using purple to color their world since the Neolithic period, when they used manganese and hematite to give purple to their cave drawings of animals and things they deemed wall-worthy. No spear head or pot sherd moves me more powerfully or strips away the 16,000 year gap that separates us more completely than the image of her own hand which some inspired cave dweller drew on her wall.

But if any species in this forest is going to claim a long and meaningful relationship with purple, I’m afraid we humans will have to yield to the snails. If there’s one tribe of creatures that has thrived gloriously in the Ichetucknee realm, it is the snails. Between the apple snails (largest freshwater snails in North America), silt snails (including species found in practically every square yard of the river bottom and vegetation and the Ichetucknee silt snail with a total range of about 500 square feet) and manatee snails that leave their snotty trails on damp, shaded tree trunks throughout the hardwoods, there are few places in this area we won’t find some kind of snail. So, what’s their connection to purple?

It turns out that some of their kin—mostly marine species—contain in their bodies, substances that yield some of the most beautiful shades of purple ever discovered in nature. In the 15th century BC, Phonecians learned how to extract a beautiful and long-lasting purple dye from the mucus of the spiney dye murex snails. This was the source of a famous dye called Tyrian Purple, used for a couple of thousand years by Emperors, noblemen and religious leaders. Creating usable dye required many snails (one researcher found it took 12,000 snails to make 1.4 ounces of dye). Descriptions of the large mounds of these shells generated by dye collectors (known, at the time as Purple Men), remind me of our local shell middens.

The Mayans and Aztecs of Central America and Mexico also discovered beautiful purples in the bodies of their local marine snails which they used in art and to dye fabrics. As in Europe and the Middle East, this rich purple quickly became the color of royalty. Also like that of its Eastern relative, the dye was worth big money—the kind of money that prompted villagers to hold large stones to their chest and jump into the water, where the stone would send them plummeting to the bottom where they would gather snails.

I hear this and I’m grateful modern cave divers have more to work with than strong lungs and big rocks. If not for their work, we would know little of the cobalt blue world of the Floridan Aquifer beneath us. Through the photographic images they bring up of vast blue chambers, it becomes increasingly clear that Florida is “born to the blue.” The challenge now is getting our legislators to value the blue color of springs as much as people of all eras have valued purple.