The day began perfectly. I arrived at the visitor center right on time. It was a relief because for a short time I thought I was not going in the right direction. Until you enter the park entrance, it feels as if you are driving through farmlands of some other state. The sun was low in the sky and the air was cool. It was cloudy, so it looked like the day would be perfect for hiking around in the Everglades, the slowest river in the world. That was the day I was going to become a bird watcher.
After I finally learned how to use binoculars (there is only supposed to be one field of vision when looking through--a circle in the middle!), I was ready to go. My first target was a rare speed limit sign, which, incidentally, is most often spotted along the main highway going through the Everglades National Park.
The next stop, Royal Palm Visitor Center was no different. Nothing escaped being captured by my binocular lenses: tops of trees, blackbirds, woodpecker nests, butterflies, grasshoppers, tourists. Of course, these things were all just practice; previews to the main attraction--the Great Blue Heron.
"What a huge bird," I thought as my eyes took in the image for the very first time. He stood about 4 feet tall. He was tucked up against a tree--hiding, but not well enough. There was mad scramble from everyone nearby to get a good look. My binoculars shot up to my face. I was eager to view it up close--I kept focusing the binoculars the wrong way, causing my now single image to be a big blurry circle. Finally, my work paid off and the giant Blue Heron came into focus. The Heron, based on the way he stood there nonchalantly, was at a comfortable distance from his spectators. The reading and the lecture popped into my headÉ "this is a ferocious creature." Using the lenses, my eyes studied his dagger-beak, while I made note of the convenience of standing so far away and being able to see so clearly. Suddenly it dawned on me that had I been standing closer, my towering 5'1" stature would make me prime candidate for having my eye plucked out. Scary!
However, for a minute, the idea of walking off, arm-in-wing, with this huge, misunderstood bird entertained me. Then, something very strange happened. He extended his left wing and motioned for me to come to him. Naturally, I was in disbelief, but found myself walking toward the bird, half reluctantly, half willing. A few yards from the Anhinga Trail, he introduced me to his other Great Blue heron friends, his relatives the Great White Herons, and his coastal friends--the Ospreys. They each took a particular part of my body ("because my bones are not as light as bird bones," he told me) and flew, with me, away to the most splendid parts of the Everglades.
They flew me to mangrove islands in the bay, freshwater marshes, and hardwood hammocks in the deepest parts of the Everglades. They took me to places that no person has ever been! Can you imagine the sights I saw? I felt like Charles Darwin, landing on the Galapagos. I experienced pure, undisturbed nature (at least undisturbed directly--there was the matter of man-made dikes diverting water that disturbed the whole ecosystem). The Herons told me of their paradise lost. They have heard the stories from the elders. The stories about how they used to be able to fly from coast to coast and look down at their land.
Then, they took me to a very special place. It was their prized spot because of the hope that it represents for them. I must admit, it was a gruesome scene. However, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The place was littered with human bones. They explained to me that the bones were the remains of some unlucky plume hunters. They excitedly explained how back in the early 20th century, the birds banded together to try to stop the extensive invasions into rookeries that resulted in feather theft (not to mention the loss of lives of these delicate birds and their future generations).
Somehow, the bigger birds--the Great Herons, Egrets, Wood storks, Greater Flamingos, and even Marbled Godwits allied and used their beaks as weapons against lone plume hunters. They were not always successful, but they felt they put up a good fight-- and that was important to them.
The birds even joked about the situation. They explained to me that the upturned beak of the Marbled Godwit was the remnant smile of appreciation and satisfaction left over from the time of plume hunting. Also, because all the birds did not want to be too obvious in their smugness, they developed a certain tendency to disguise their smile. For example, the down-turned beaks of Ibis and Greater Flamingos were really upside down smiles. At least, I believed they were joking about that!?
I wished that I could stay there longer with them, but our time together had to end. They invited me back to bird watch again. In fact, they said they knew that their only hope for saving their habitat was to wade around and perform for the tourists because being seen is what keeps them remembered. Of course, there were just a few birds that volunteer for this task. There are several hundred that live deep within the Everglades and live as normal a life as their ancestors did.
The great birds dropped me off in the parking lot of Royal Palm visitor center, where my adventure began. At first I thought it was my imagination, because it felt as if no time had actually passed when I was standing back in the parking lot with all the other students. However, later in the day, they flew past the tour boat, or hid in the mangroves, or waved to me from the mud flats. Some of them were smiling that disguised smile that said 'we will be victorious...because this is our land, and our history, and our piece of heaven. We have managed through many things, including hurricanes, and it can't get much worse!'
Copyright © 1997. All rights reserved.