Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Legendary rookery still thrives

EVERGLADES -- Deep within the Everglades, Cuthbert Rookery remains a significant nesting spot for the endangered wood stork as well as great and snowy egrets.

But though it's tranquil today -- protected by its location in a closed-off lake within Everglades National Park -- the rookery was once a place of legend, and a site of massacre.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, roughly 60 wood storks and 40 egrets were perched on the tiny island rookery, which occupies maybe 60-by-20 yards in Cuthbert Lake -- part of a network of waterways that lie on the southern edge of the mainland, close to Florida Bay.

A steady stream of birds headed off the island as well, while others could be seen returning to the rookery with nest-building materials.

The numbers are high enough to give the island a lively, if not quite crowded, vibe. But they're nothing like the thousands of birds that reportedly nested in Cuthbert Rookery around the turn of the 20th century, before a hunter named George Cuthbert gave it its name.

During the late 19th century, plume-ornamented hats were the rage at the high-society fashion houses of the northeast. For hunters in Florida, that meant the potential for high profit. The race for Florida's wading birds spread quickly, moving from the more populated north to the frontier country of the Everglades as bird populations were wiped out.

By the turn of the 20th century, wading birds, among them roseate spoonbills, egrets and herons, had been decimated by the plume trade.

But within the hostile Everglades lay a rookery that no white man had seen -- save for the evidence of the birds in the sky as they made their way between nests and foraging grounds.

Today, Cuthbert Lake is clearly mapped. As a conservation measure, it is off limits to the general public. But for researchers who make the trek, it takes just 45 minutes to motor there from the nearest dock. And that dock, of course, is accessible by car. The biggest challenge in reaching the lake is navigating two narrow creeks that are crowded with driftwood.

Things could hardly have been more different in 1902, when a determined Cuthbert -- dollar signs in his eyes -- set out for the rookery that would take his name.

According to an account written by ornithologist Herbert K. Job, circa 1917, Cuthbert began his quest in Whitewater Bay, north of Flamingo. The trip from there to Cuthbert Lake wouldn't have been very far as the crow -- or the wood stork -- flies, perhaps as short as 10 or 15 miles. But Cuthbert's route was far from direct.

Plunging into the mangrove swamp, "he paddled along channels and lakes whenever possible. When it was not, he carried canoe and outfit on his back, struggling through the tropical tangle, and sleeping among the mangrove roots when night overtook him," Job wrote.

Accounts of Cuthbert's trek, almost like a myth, aren't specific about how long he searched for the lake. But it apparently went on for numerous grueling days.

"There was a limit to his food supply, to his water, and eventually to his endurance. And then he saw it," wrote Stuart McIver in his 2003 book "Death in the Everglades."

The Cuthbert island has since been reshaped and made smaller by hurricanes. But back then it was said to be two acres in size and home to thousands of birds: herons, spoonbills, egrets and more. Cuthbert killed as many as he could, eventually selling his bounty for the reported princely sum of $1,800.

Cuthbert Rookery, once discovered, became vulnerable to further attacks. But a year before Cuthbert's trek, in 1901, the state of Florida had hired a game warden and Monroe County sheriff's deputy named Guy Bradley to protect the Everglades' wading birds, which by then had garnered much interest from America's young environmental movement.

Bradley was, by all accounts, diligent in his duties, pursuing plume hunters in a largely lawless territory from the Everglades to the 10,000 Islands and all the way to Key West, despite the obvious dangers such a job brought.

But he wasn't able to protect the Cuthbert Rookery, which in 1904 was plundered again.

"Cuthbert Rookery has been shot out," Bradley told a visiting ornithologist named Frank Chapman that winter. "You could've walked right around the rookery on them birds' bodies, between four and five hundred of them."

A year and half later, Cuthbert Rookery played a role in the killing of Bradley by Walter Smith, according to this account from a 1919 edition of Field and Stream:

"One Smith was residing at Flamingo at the time, and Bradley, believing that Smith was going to Cuthbert Rookery and also that he was molesting the heron rookeries on the Oyster Keys [in north Florida Bay], went out one afternoon to investigate the latter's sloop which lay near one of the islands. He failed to return that night."

Bradley's body was found the next day. Smith, a plume hunter with whom Bradley had had previous run-ins, was eventually acquitted on self-defense grounds.

But Bradley won the battle for posterity and has become a martyr in Everglades environmental history. The island just south of Flamingo on which he was shot is now called Bradley Key.

Small, but productive

These days, Cuthbert Rookery remains productive, though it is far from the biggest in Everglades National Park. Last year 135 egrets built nests on the tiny island, along with 60 endangered wood storks, according to counts taken by park biologist Lori Oberhofer.

By comparison, some 3,000 birds, mainly white ibis, nested in the park's largest rookery, located in its northeast corner, along the Tamiami Trail.

Still, with Cuthbert's 195 nests, it was the 10th most prolific rookeries in the 1.5 million-acre park last year. And only four spots had more wood stork nests.

Birds are attracted to the island because its small size makes it difficult for nemeses, especially raccoons, to establish themselves there -- all the more so because Cuthbert Lake is alligator-infested.

"It's a nice spot for them because it is so much protected," Oberhofer said. "They seem to nest in areas that have their own alligator moat."

Last year was a disastrous year, breeding wise, for the Everglades National Park wood storks. Most of the 820 birds which nested in the park didn't begin the process until March, leaving them too little time to raise fledglings before the wet season.

When heavy rains arrived early, in April, water levels rose in the wood stork foraging grounds, allowing prey to disperse. Every wood stork nest in the park, include the 60 at Cuthbert Rookery, failed.

This year, though, the nesting activity has begun early at Cuthbert. Oberhofer counted 30 nests there last week.

She said the Cuthbert island continues to be a special place within the Everglades, not just because it's still a sizeable rookery, but because of its unique historical value. Most of the other rookeries that were written about in the Everglades of yore are either gone, or their precise location isn't known.

But that's not the case with Cuthbert.

"It is interesting because it is still there, and it is clearly the same island, which is really cool," Oberhofer said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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