In 1832 when he was 47 years old, the naturalist and painter John James Audubon visited the Florida Keys in search of new specimens to catalog. One of these was the Double-Crested Cormorant, a water bird I had the pleasure of observing this past week during our out island adventure on Big Munson Island in the lower Keys. From my limited ornithological viewpoint, this was a stocky looking fellow with patches of gray-haired plumage and big webbed feet - that is to see, a mirror-like vision as I headed out to the reef in diving fins. Here's what Audubon thought of them:
The Keys were separated by narrow and tortuous channels, from the surface of the clear waters of which were reflected the dark mangroves, on the branches of which whole colonies of Cormorants had already built their nests, and were sitting on their eggs. There were many thousands of these birds, and every tree bore a greater or less number of their nests, some five or six, others as many as ten. The leaves, branches, and stems of the trees, were in a manner whitewashed with their dung.
Audubon also thought that the Cormorants of the Keys were specific to Florida, that they differed from those he'd observed (and shot) farther up in the mainland of the young United States. Audubon spent a great deal of time in the Keys among the birds, and during our five days off the grid among the mangroves, I can see why. It's a unique and somewhat fragile ecoystem, yet the lower Keys support such as wide variety of wildlife that it's nearly impossible to tote up in a life time. Our scout guides had excellent memories, however, and they soon introduced us to the vast open zoological park at out grimy feet.
But let's focus on the birds for a moment. I'm not a birder, yet one of my favorite characters in all of literature in the English language is Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan ship's surgeon and spy whose ethics and wit center the nautical canon of Patrick O'Brian. In the books, Maturin is a naturalist, a member of the Royal Society, and very much modeled along historical archetypes like Audubon and Darwin. He prizes the unusual, the ability to stun his scientific colleagues back in Europe - and so the chesty cormorant is not a prize at all, as this bit from Desolation Island reveals:
The physic-nuts proved of excellent quality, the puffin the true Branco puffin and not, as Stephen had feared, a cormorant or gull. A splendid acquisition, though in so advanced a state of decomposition that it was obliged to be hurried back to the ship before it would fall apart. After a brief tour of his patients and word with Martin, he took the bird into his cabin, wrote an exact description of its plumage and outward members in his journal, and then, gasping at the stench, clapped it into spirits of wine for a later dissection.
O'Brian was clearly inventing; even this non-birder knows a Puffin looks nothing like a Cormorant - that the two could hardly be confused. I suspect the great writer merely liked the sound of the words. My own voyage (via JetBlue and the rented van, rather than deal old Surprise) allowed for far less leisurely consideration of the winged fellowship in the waters around Summerland Key and Big Munson Island. But I did jot a few notes in the journal, that I later checked back at the scout base to identify a few species: the elegant Frigate Bird in flight over the ways, the small Wilson's Plovers, the Great Egret, the Little Blue Heron, the brilliant little Red-Winged Blackbird (always in the low trees around the camp like little lanterns), and the ubiquitous Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls.
But it was that Cormorant that got my attention as we rowed in from the island in those hard-to-handle war canoes; there in the shallows between a channel and the outer reef, one of them swam by the boat and dove repeatedly for fish. It wasn't particularly elegant in motion. There was no poetry in the movement. He was a working bird, fishing for dinner. A grinder. My kind of water bird. A bird for our times.