The shots came from the direction of the rookery. Guy Bradley didn’t hesitate as he checked his rifle, pushed the skiff into the water, and went to investigate. Although he hoped otherwise, he feared the shots were from plume hunters making another assault on the rookery where the snowy egrets, ibises, and herons were abundant targets. Hired in 1902 he was a deputy of the American Ornithologists’ Union and himself a converted plume hunter, but now, at age 35, sworn to protect the Florida birds from these poachers. As he warily approached rookery he was not surprised to see Walter Smith and his two sons loading the dead birds into their boat. He had previously arrested them for poaching and was aware of their threats if he ever tried to arrest them again. Unfortunately they fulfilled their threat and Bradley’s body was found by his brothers the next day in the bottom of his boat.
The Bradley family moved to South Florida from Chicago in 1876 when Guy was 6 years old. Instead of the more common westward migration of the era, they joined others looking to make their fortunes in railroad and real estate development in the undeveloped swamps and marshland of Florida. As a teenager Guy worked as a fishing and hunting guide and became a scout for the noted French plume hunter Jean Chevalier. The plumes, especially those acquired with the birds in full mating glory, brought prices of more than $20 an ounce, more than the price of gold, in the New York millinery industry of the late 19th and early 20th century. The fashion was for large, gaudy hats, adorned with feathers, and sometimes even the whole stuffed bird.
The Lacey Act of 1900 outlawed the trafficking of illegally acquired wildlife and recognized the stresses on the wading birds of Florida. The roots of the early conservation movement began to take hold. Game warden Bradley had the almost impossible task of covering a territory extending from Miami, across the Great Cypress Swamp and Everglades to 10,000 Islands on the west coast, and south to Key West. His early work in educating the public, enforcing the law, and resulting murder made him the first martyr of the early conservation movement. Eventually changes in fashion, further laws, better enforcement, and the efforts of the National Audubon Society and others finally brought this sorry chapter to a close.
The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an 13,000 acre preservation of unspoiled Southwest Florida in the western Everglades wetland, is a monument to those early conservation successes, but the story doesn’t end with the control of the plume hunters. The history of Florida is also about ongoing water management issues; the damming, draining, rerouting, and utilization of fresh water. Its about its natural resources, mining, logging the bald cypress forests, and the vast sugar cane and citrus plantations. Its about finding a formula for sustainable population growth and development, while preserving some of our past.
Corkscrew has been at the forefront of these effort since was acquired by the Audubon Society in 1954. Starting in the 1930’s the development of railroads in South Florida made the logging of the Bald Cypress forests feasible. The hard wood was valuable and much was shipped to Europe for reconstruction of that continent following World War II. With the loggers getting ever closer to the Corkscrew and its large stand of virgin trees dating back 500-600 years, the Audubon Society was able to acquire the property and save the forest.
Early development in South Florida was understandably all about draining the central swamps. The only land high enough for initial settlement was the narrow highlands along each coast. From as far north as present day Orlando the rain and ground water flowed south to massive Lake Okeechobee, which periodically flooded its southern banks, creating a massive “river of grass” supplying the Cypress Swamp and Everglades with fresh water, but making central Florida inaccessible. The fall was only 2 inches per mile, but just enough to allow the inexorable flow of water to the south creating in the words of forester Gifford Pinchot, “a region so different that it hardly seems to belong to the United States. It is full of the most vivid and interesting life on land, in the air, and in the water. It is a land of strangeness, separate and apart from the common things we all know so well.”
The last quarter of the 20th century was all about the restoration of this southern flow of water, previously disrupted by dams, dikes, and canals, in hopes of saving the Everglades and Cypress Swamp. The Corkscrew Sanctuary has benefited from this renewed supply of water and today has the largest stand of old growth Bald Cypress in the world. It is home to the largest nesting colony of Wood Storks in North America, countless other wading birds, and other subtropical fauna and flora.
I’m a member of Corkscrew Sanctuary and usually visit 4 or 5 times a year. On my last visit I decided to leave the telephoto bird lens home and take some wider angle views of this wonderful site for this post. As luck would have it the fog rolled in that morning, but it did create an ephemeral mood, so fitting to this place. I’ll create a later post specifically about my experiences Birding Corkscrew.
If your interested in further reading about the plume hunters I recommend Death in the Everglades: The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism, by Stuart B. McIver.