Some time ago I visited the warden of this reservation, located in the edge of the “Big Cypress” Swamp thirty-two miles south of Ft. Myers, Florida. Arriving at the colony late in the evening, after having traveled thirty miles without seeing a human being or a human habitation, we killed a rattlesnake and proceeded to make camp. The shouting of a pair of Sandhill Cranes awakened us at daylight, and, to quote Greene, the warden, the sun was about “two hands high” when we started into the rookery. We crossed a glade two hundred yards wide and then entered the swamp. Progress was slow, for the footing was uncertain and the tall sawgrass cut our wrists and faces.
There are many things unspeakably stimulating about a journey in such a tropical swamp. You work your way through thick, tangled growths of water plants and hanging vines. You clamber over huge fallen logs damp with rank vegetation, and wade through a maze of cypress ” knees.” Unwittingly, you are sure to gather on your clothing a colony of ravenous ticks from some swaying branch. Redbugs bent on mischief scramble up on you by the score and bury themselves in your skin, while a cloud of mosquitoes waves behind you like a veil. In the somber shadows through which you move you have a feeling that there are many unseen things that crawl and glide and fly, and a creepy feeling about the edges of your scalp becomes a familiar sensation. Once we came upon the trail of a bear and found the going easier when we waded on hands and knees through the opening its body had made.
In the more open places the water was completely covered with floating plants that Greene called “wild lettuce.” These appeared to be uniform in size, and presented an absolutely level surface except in a few places where slight elevations indicated the presence of inquisitive alligators, whose gray eyes we knew were watching our movements through the lettuce Ieaves.
Although the swamp was unpleasant under foot, we had but to raise our eyes to behold a world of beauty. The purple blossoms of air plants, and the delicate petals of other orchids greeted us every-where. From the boughs overhead long streamers of gray Spanish moss waved and beckoned in the breeze. Still higher, on gaunt branches of giant cypresses a hundred feet above our heads, great, grotesque Wood I bises were standing on their nests, or taking flight for their feeding grounds a dozen miles southward.
We were now fairly in the midst of an immense bird city, and some of the inhabitants were veritable giants in the bird world. The body of a Wood Ibis is about the size of a Turkey hen. Its long, bare neck terminates in a most remarkable fashion, for the top of the head is not only innocent of feathers but also destitute of skin ” Flintheads,” the people call the bird. Its bill is nearly ten inches long, slightly curved and very massive. Woe to the unlucky fish or luckless rat upon whom a blow falls from the Flint-head’s heavy beak! There were probably one hundred thousand of these birds inhabiting Corkscrew Rookery at the time of my visit. There were also large colonies of the smaller White Ibis and several varieties of Heron. Eight of the almost extinct Roseate Spoonbills wheeled into view above the swamp, but quickly passed from sight.
The most interesting birds, those concerning which the Audubon Society is most solicitous, are the White Egrets. These snow-white models of grace and beauty have been persecuted for their plumes almost to the point of extermination, and here is situated the largest assemblage of them left in Florida.
“Those `long whites’ are never off my mind for a minute,” said the warden, as we paused to watch some fly over. “Two men came to my camp last week who thought I’ didn’t know them, but I did.
They were old-time plume hunters. They said they were hunting cattle, but I knew better they were after Egrets and came to see if I was on guard. I told them if they saw any one after plumes to pass the word that I would shoot on sight any man with a gun who attempted to enter the Corkscrew. I would do it, too,” he added as he tapped the barrel of his Winchester. ” It is terrible to hear the young birds calling for food after the old ones have been killed to get the feathers for rich women to wear. I am not going to have my birds sacrificed that way.”
The teeming thousands of birds in this rookery feed their young to a more or less extent on fish, and from the nests many fragments fall into the mud and water below. In the wise economy of nature few objects of real value are suffered to go to waste. Resting on the water plants, coiled on logs, or festooned in the low bushes, numerous cotton-mouthed water-moccasins lie in wait. Silently and motionless they watch and listen, now and then raising their heads when a light splash tells them of the approach of some heedless frog, or of the falling of some dead fish like manna from the nests above. May is the dry season, and the low water of the swamp accounted in a measure for the unusual number of snakes to be seen. Exercising a fair amount of caution, I slew that morning fourteen poisonous reptiles, one of which measured more than five feet in length and had a girth I was just able to encompass with both hands.
Wardens Shot by Plume Hunters.This is a region where the Audubon warden must constantly keep his lonely watch, for should he leave even for a short time there would be danger of the colony being raided and the protective work of many seasons wiped out. A successful shooting trip of plume hunters to the Corkscrew might well net the gunners as much as five thousand dollars, and in a country where money is scarce that would mean a magnificent fortune. The warden is fully alive to this fact, and is ever on the alert. Many of the plume hunters are desperate men, and he never knows what moment he may need to grasp his rifle to defend his life in the shadows of the Big Cypress, where alligators and vultures would make short shrift of his remains.
He remembers, as he goes his rounds among the birds day by day, or lies in his tent at night, that a little way to the south, on a lonely sand key, lies buried Guy Bradley, who was done to death by plume hunters while guarding for the Audubon Society the Cuthbert Egret Rookery. On Orange Lake, northward, the warden in charge still carries in his body a bullet from a plume gatherer’s gun. Only three days before my visit Greene’s nearest brother warden on duty at the Alligator Bay Colony had a desperate rifle battle with four poachers who, in de-fiance of law and decency, attempted to shoot the Egrets which he was paid to protect.
I like to think of Greene as I saw him the last night in camp, his brown, lean face aglow with interest as he told me many things about the birds he guarded. The next day I was to leave him, and night after night he would sit by his fire, a lonely representative of the Audubon Society away down there on the edge of the Big Cypress, standing as best he could between the lives of the birds he loved and the insatiable greed of Fashion.