Travel Journals by Hilary Hopkins

March 5-25 1993 / South Florida and Belize: Looking for Bitterns, or What's Hidden in Plain Sight

Wandering the Tropical Trails of Florida and Belize
Part 1 - Bliss in the Everglades

Part 1 - Bliss in the Everglades

[NOTE:  The wonderful image of a bittern in the grass is used by gracious permission of Jessica Quinn; visit her blog to see more.]


5 March 1993 - Flamingo, Florida, at The Everglades
I left Boston, snow-bound, cold, white, behind me.  We sat for an hour on the runway while crews tended to our ice-covered wings.  And then away we flew, into the sun, and here I am in South Florida.

Every sense is laved here!  Humidity enters the fiber of my hair and curls it into a wild tangle which pleases me very much and makes me feel--not exactly young, but somehow no age at all.  My skin and the body within it feel more supple.  The smell of it here calls forth memories of hot nights, walks in the dark, life bursting from each niche, from every tiny crevice.  What makes that delicious smell?  It's sweet, organic, many-layered, deep and high at the same time.  It's a smell of things growing, dying, living, talking to each other along the air.  I hear frogs now, calling outside my door insistently.  I stood and listened to a tree of white ibises, crying and whimpering like puppies.  Rustles in the bushes showed me a warbler ("confusing") of olive, yellow, and white.  Osprey sang to each other.  Fish lashed the water in excitement.  An alligator lay in silence, while above him people talked of him respectfully.  The wind blew into my car, a warm, tasty wind.

Everything here seems wonderful, even a can of Coke.

I saw communities of cheap houses, their hurricane-opened roofs covered with blue plastic.  I saw piles of hurricane debris, neatly gathered and arranged by the roadside.  I saw that Robert Is [Still] Here, selling fruit at the bend in the road to the Everglades.  I saw swallow-tailed kites and boat-tailed grackles, a thick brown watersnake, a Great Blue Heron maneuvering a thick fish into position for swallowing.  I saw thick fish, in steady patrol, and long thin ones hugging stream banks in formation.  I saw a big turtle.  Elderly ladies watching birds.  Young Germans in short pants.  Piles of dead storm-killed limbs and bushes, covered with blue and violet morning glories. 

A little later, now, and I’ve had my dinner.  I’m ready to go to sleep.  It has been a long, fine, amazing day, from snow to the edge of the tropics.  I’m very happy here.

6 March - Flamingo, Florida - Everglades.
It felt so fine to get my car--first having called John to tell him I was in Miami.  It seems the Boston airport closed while we were en route.  On the plane we all cheered in smug delight when told this.  Anyhow, I got my car, figured out how to use it--I've learned how to take my time for this--figured out how to get on the turnpike south, after a few false starts, and how to get here.

Looking for signs of the hurricane.  The piles of brush, piles of broken things, both natural and human-made, lay by the roadsides.  I saw a pair of rows of garish pink condos, built in a field where they had no right to be, no trees to break the wind, abandoned now, in shreds.  Along the turnpike, traffic went at a sedate speed, and slowed down when passing these places.  To look.  The road does not really go through Homestead, so I did not see the rows of destruction.  But I did see fields of crops, people picking or planting them, I do not know which, and far more recovery than I had expected.

The new Everglades Visitors' Center, replacing the one wrecked in the hurricane, is nearly finished, in the style of a cracker house, and it blooms with sweet wood smells in the sun.

I went right to Royal Palm turnoff.  Although only part of the boardwalk is open now, I walked it and also Gumbo-Limbo trail, creeping along very slowly so as to be as much a part of it as I could. 

Osprey crying, on the wing and perched above the path.  Three swallow-tailed kites banking expertly in the wind.  A tiny spider with orange markings.  The dark brown watersnake arranged neatly on a log.  The Great Blue Heron, having impaled a big fish on his upper mandible, can't get it off.  People stand around taking pictures and encouraging him.  A small cheer goes up when he succeeds in swallowing it.

On the Gumbo-Limbo Trail I see a warbler, very clear and very close, but I can't identify it!  Well, I enjoy it anyhow.  Especially I love to go along so quietly.  So differently from other people, who rowd around in noisy groups, scaring every thing away.

Here at Flamingo, everything I've arranged from home works well.  My room overlooks Flamingo Bay and mangrove islands.  It could not be more wonderful.

At dusk I walk to Eco Pond and learn from the experienced birders there.  I see a moorhen, boat-tailed grackles which glitter blue-black, white ibis in their nesting or resting tree, tri-colored herons, a green heron, great blues--several squadrons of pelicans slice overhead.  So I saw this warbler, I say.  And describe it.  They offer several suggestions.  I'm just rotten at warblers, I say in despair.  It just takes time, they encourage me.

At dinner, late, I rest and observe comfortably.  Why do they come here?  since most of them don't sneak around like me, what do they see?  I should ask them.  For clearly they all do see something.  Everybody looks happy here, comfortable and relaxed.  Even the Germans!

I sleep well.  But I hear people up and out at 5 am!  I laze in bed till 6.  It's hard about sleep here, because it's delicious to sleep in it and also I love the night, and the early morning.  I end up exhausted, in the South, but I don't want to MISS anything.

I can imagine coming here, to Florida, to live.  In the tropics.

I feel pleased with how neatly my plans seem to work.  I've bought a bag of lunch makings and breakfast, at the marina store, and while I dress and fill my pack I eat a roll and juice.  The car is covered with thick condensation and I have to wipe off all the windows and run the windshield wiper and the defroster so I can see down the road in the low dawn light.  I park--all by myself--in the pulloff for the Rowdy Bend Trail, about six miles round trip.  It's 7 am.

Sneak, creep, pick, glide, stride--stop, look, listen, sniff--consult the Peterson's, use the binoculars, strain to see, what's that movement up there, down there, over there?  Commit the butterfly forms and colors and patterns to memory, give up on most of the elusive birds which swarm through the low canopy, very busy with their morning work.  I identify--finally having seen him--the resplendent and glowing red-bellied woodpecker.

There are some mockingbirds.  Warblers of course.  What appear to be doves, but only in silhouette so I can't see details.  It seems there are white-crowned doves here, must be them, and although I struggle to catch a view of them I can hear their distinctive flight.  Sitting at a distance on a snag in a beautiful meadowy area is a red-shouldered hawk, the pale Florida morph.  A pair of cardinals pick at hidden food on the trail behind me.   A jay yells overhead at me.  I hear the full call of the barred owl, though of course I do not see him.

The trail leads me through hammock forest, along nearly open spaces; I walk respectfully and alertly past watery places that may hold animals more powerful than I.

There are great hordes--thin clouds--of butterflies.  White ones, red ones, and especially the yellow and black zebras.  I think they will land on me but they don't.  There are so many I imagine I can hear their wing-beats.  I have bought a book of Florida butterflies.  Butterflies require a whole different kind of stalking and moving, different from birds.  I like it that when you can see them, you can really see them, unlike birds which are frustratingly tantalizing.

Mixed among the butterflies are many bronze dragonflies.  They zoom and dart amid the fluttering, looping butterflies.

I pass by the side of a prairie.  At my edge of it is a tiny pond.  Half a dozen killdeer are artfully concealed along its edge and what might be a yellowlegs scuffles about in the shallow water, poking for his breakfast.

I'm all alone on this fine trail, on this very fine morning.  Nature's silence, noisy with birds, fills me with joy.

The trail takes a sharp turn toward the water of Snake Bight.  Some people pass me on trail bikes, having come from the other trail that merges here.  How can they see anything?  I like the slowest possible pace, barely moving, filled with, swimming in, time.

On my way toward the end of this trail, at Snake Bight--that appears, "bight," to be a kind of inlet--the trail's changed, and now permits folks to ride trail bikes along it, on the Snake Bight trail, which joins Rowdy Bend near its end.  I don't like the company at all, but I'm feeling so good I don't mind.  An older couple wheel by in the opposite direction.  Her perfume or cosmetics poison the air.  Molecules of artificial, sickening sweetness hang in the air for many feet behind her.

But I'm alone at the end of the trail, and it turns to boardwalk at water's edge.  I am very slowly learning to emerge into new mini-habitats carefully, so as not to startle away whatever may be there.  I walk softly onto the boardwalk.  A duck?  there's a duck in the water.  With the binoculars I see it's a merganser.  She swims steadily away from me.  A great blue heron lifts off ponderously from my left, and flies out a ways.  At the end of the boardwalk I can see there are a fair number of birds--herons, some other shore birds I can't identify, and a pair of mergansers.  At the horizon is a spread of pink, too far for me to identify them, but it must be a flock of roseate spoonbills.

Water trickles down the Florida peninsula and enters the bay here, right in front of me.  Just a trickle, but steady, power-filled.  The tide is very low, it's mud out for a long way.  I see old footprints of people who came off the boardwalk into the mud to get closer, closer, closer--to--?  It's tempting but I know the rewards are illusory, for the birds will only take flight, and my footprints will distract from the fragile reality here.

I turn to go.  I'm trotting along a little more briskly now, more used to the trail, less nervous of things that might be new and alarming.  Stop! at the end of the boardwalk--Freeze!-- is an anole, two of them, one bright green, the other brown.  I raise the binoculars.  I have the two of them, filling my field.  The green one faces the other for a second, and then, like a tiny pimpled scarlet balloon, inflates his throat sac in threat.  Zip!! Brown's gone in a trice, with Green in hot pursuit.  Then just as suddenly--could this be Green, in a lightning-fast color change?  A third anole's sitting there, by himself.  This one's a rich reddish-brown.  I come slowly forward and take a picture.  Trying him out, I reach forward.  He lets me touch his hard little tail!  then jumps onto a bush, and I take another picture.

I re-enter Rowdy Bend trail.  Two people come toward me.  We stop briefly--the mosquitoes swarm around us.  They're British.  They haven't seen much, they say in response to my naturalist-hiker's question, except mosquitoes.  The do ask about the zebra butterflies, though.  "Zehbra," they echo me.

Then I'm alone again, ineffably happy. 

A sudden movement on a branch overhanging the trail.  I freeze and look with the binoculars.  It's some kind of small hawk, only a few feet away!  What a strange place for him to be.  He flies off, and I look him up.  Short-tailed hawk, he is.  Yes! a new bird!

It's warming now, and I stop more often to drink.  As always when I am in the field, and alone, the Trance overtakes me.  Was it E. O. Wilson, that luscious man, who described and named the naturalists' trance?  that place of sensoriness, no, ugly word.  It's a thing of time, place, intensity, sensory focus.  One's other life recedes to an immense distance.  The sense of immediacy is almost painful in its intensity.  All that matters is what you hear, what you smell, what you see.  The shapes of things, the feel of them, the sense you can make of them.  Nothing else exists, nothing else matters.  You must look at the closest range and yet be aware of the larger dimensions: what kind of land is this?  how is it subtly changing along the trail?  what might that mean for what I might find?

What might I find?  Here is a fine scat I overlooked on the way out.  It's long, 7 inches by 3/4 inch (I measure it with the scale in the cover of my Peterson's), slightly twisted, short brown hairs inside but also, sticking out of the tapered end, a fine, long, bi-colored hair. Could it possibly be cat?  There's also a very tiny perfectly round white thing.  I pull it off. It looks at first like a seed, but when I crush it it seems more shell-like.  I'd love to collect the scat, but I leave it.

Half an hour later, just in some grass at the side of the trail, I see two eggs.  I pick one up.  It's a bit over an inch long, perfectly ovoid, narrow, cold and heavy.  It's exactly like the alligator egg of Ron's that Tom gave me, but smaller.  I rack my brain.  Snake!  It's a snake egg!   This treasure I do collect, guiltily.  I don't see how it could be viable, and I want to identify it.  I put it in my shirt pocket, where it hangs in the warmth below my breast, as if I were incubating it.

Another half hour goes by, and I figure I'm almost out, since I'm going along at a faster pace.  I begin to be aware of a lot of noise, off-trail to my left.  Birds.  A lot of raucous birds.  I use the binoculars to watch two beautiful wood storks circling and gliding.  The bird ruckus gets louder.  Very briefly I see a large egret lift above the trees and flop down again.  I watch for a while, trying to see what is in there; it's a line of trees a couple hundred feet away.  The noise is amazing: scaws, grunts, shrieks, cries, rasps, chuckles, gurgles.  I have vague impressions of some white birds moving in the thickness.

Well, I think, too bad I can't see them clearly.  Gotta stay on the trail.  I start to move out.

Wait, I say to myself.  This is ridiculous.  Get over there and look, dammit!  Why did you come on this trip, anyway?

So I do.  Carefully picking my way, I move off the trail toward the sounds.  I'm specially watchful around logs and brush, of which there's lots.  Gradually I move closer, using my knees or sticks to clear away the numerous spider's webs.  Sorry guys, but you can rebuild.

Now I'm in a swampy place, with pneumatophores sticking up everywhere, like a bed of big brittle brown nails: black mangrove.

And I can see, I can see here and there through the tangle.  There are hundreds of birds, all white, some ibis, some egrets.  Males have fantastic feathery plumage.  All kinds of activity is happening.  Males are jumping at each other, birds are poking into the shallow water, preening themselves.

I muck into the water, to my boot tops and over.  I slither and crunch closer through the thicket of dead and live trees and bushes.  I find a low log to sit on.  I'm only about thirty feet from their ground, hidden.  I watch and watch.  The noise is astonishing.  Every once in a while with a great whooomping of wings many of them fly up a few feet into the surrounding trees, but they soon return to the watery ground to feed.  I devoutly wish for a camcorder.  But I tape with my eyes instead.  It's a city of birds.  I am filled with awe, with joy, and with pride for having given myself the chance to see this.

I try to move a little closer, but I see I am moving them instead.  So I return carefully to the trail.

It's funny.  I always want to be alone for such things, but I also wish I could immediately share them, with someone special who would understand.

Here's my car.  It's past noon, my feet and boots are soaked, but I want more.  I get back on the road and drive to Bear Lake, where there's supposed to be a trail.

Drive down a dirt road, very very slowly so as not to raise dust.  Waterway to my right.

Trail-head.  I stop to eat lunch, peanut butter and jelly and bread and fig newtons and water.  A crow comes begging and sits on my car boldly.  A fat, mild man comes along on a trail bike.  We talk a little.  He's simple.  Been here ten years, from Illinois.  The crow watches us.  I give him a crust for his patience.

There's water on both sides here, a waterway, narrow and dark on one side, and a smaller one on the other side.  Lizards rustle in the plants every few feet.

The water bubbles, plunks, drips, splashes, plorks, plips, tlorks.

I see, clearly, a gator haul-out.  The water on one side is covered with scum, but there's a gator-wide opening through it, a gator-sized track through the mud at the edge, a faint trace across the trail in front of me, and a slight indication of weighted-down grasses on the other side.  There should be a gator in there, I think to myself.  And yes! I find him, only his eyes and forehead, my very own alligator that I found through reading sign.  I take his picture, proudly.

At the end of this trail is Bear Lake.  A group of Hispanic men are fishing there, in silence.  We do not greet each other.  The fat man on the bike is there too.  I feel uncomfortable and do not want to stay.  "They're not ketchin' anything," he laughs.  "I been here a while, and they haven't caught a thing.  I thought they was just hidin' a secret fishin' hole, but they ain't caught a thing," he laughs again.  "Well, good-bye again," he says, and sets off slowly on his bike. 

I walk out, and drive back to my cozy room at Flamingo.  I have time to rest and write, before my Sunset Cruise.  I find a tick!  but I'm totally cool.  I remove him and flush him.

A stroll along the Bay front, and I chat with a couple of those weedy blond sturdy little Florida boys.  They tell me how they went on the canoe trail?  and a gator was right next to their boat? and Mawma was scared, but they weren't.

I find a hermit thrush in a bush, another new bird.

The sunset cruise is wonderful.  There are only four of us, she an expert birder, her husband, and a sweet New Yorker born and bred, pleased with everything, happy in himself, glad to be able to see all that's in the big beautiful world.  We chat in comfort.  Our skipper, Barry, is a good man with both boat and birds.  We see bald eagles and an enormous white pelican.  Great skeins and lines and wings of birds fly out to the keys for the night.  The moon hangs nearly Full above the pale water.  I try to take pictures, but only the time itself will be real.  I cannot trap it in either image or word.