To say the Brooklyn Bridge saved scrub jays and indigo snakes is a tad dramatic, but it isn't wholly untrue.
Today I'm hiking through paths on property set aside by the grandson of the man who designed the bridge, John Augustus Roebling.
Roebling's a familiar name in Pinellas — Clearwater boasts the Roebling estate on the water, where bridge designer Roebling's great grandson, Donald, lived (genealogy fans, here's a Roebling family tree) — but in south Florida, down by Lake O., the Roebling name means conservation.
In 1941, John A. Roebling II donated over 1000 acres in Highland County to Archbold Expeditions, an exploration group led by his son's school chum, Richard Archbold. This swath of land became Archbold Station, which today houses indigo snakes and families of scrub jay, a bird I've often described as looking like a blue jay who's had a rough night of drinking.
Scrub jays and indigo snakes survive best in the Florida scrub, sandy expanses of land with few trees but plenty of lower bushes and palms. These social birds live in extended family units; the young stay with the parents for years after they fledge and bring their mates into the family circle, so that their homes consist of generations living together. Jays have sentinel birds, perched high above the scrub watching for predators and, when one is sighted, sounding an alarm. According to Dr. Reed Bowman, a biologist at the Station, the jays take turns as sentinel and have different calls for different levels of danger (think of it as a "threat level" call). Despite a nasty habit of eating other birds' eggs — something all jays do — they're sweet, unafraid birds, and they're in danger of extinction because of us.
I'm not about to proselytize here, because I assume if you read CL, you know humans aren't the best thing for... well, any other living thing, really. We're here. That's not changing. The scrub jay doesn't have a lot of scrub left in Florida and, much as we'd like to change that, too, odds are it isn't going to happen in our lifetime. So if you want to see one, you have to go looking — and you're not going to find them in the Tampa Bay area.
The same goes for indigo snakes, which once lived as close at Boyd Hill (signs in the park still tell people they may see one, but rangers say the snakes are long gone). Archbold has an established population of the scrub-dwelling indigos, once far more common than they are now. Indigos share burrows with gopher tortoise and — bonus — are immune to rattlesnake venom, which means they can snack voraciously on rattlers.
As much as I've read about the scrub jay and the indigo, I've never seen one, and it's a video produced for schoolkids about the bird (read this online to see the short film) that prompts me to go in search of one. I call Dr. Bowman, who tries to show me how to mimic the scrub jay's call. It sounds like a dry whistle when I make it, which isn't right, I know, but I follow his advice and head to the benches on the trail where he says the scrub jays frequent.
It takes about two hours from south Pinellas to reach Archbold Biological Station; it's west of the north edge of Lake Okeechobee. It takes a few moments to find the longer of the two trails, which is the one Dr. Bowman says to take if I want to see scrub jays. Among other things, the avian biologists here can summon the birds, who associate the scientists with food (although non-biologists are strongly discouraged from feeding them). As we hike towards the bench — and it's a narrow path through sand, which means you're using some leg muscle here — I keep my eyes on the ground, ever hopeful of finding an indigo snake. Unlike the scrub jay, though, there's no way to lure snakes, so it's the luck of the draw whether or not you find one of these giant shiny (non-venomous) bluish-black snakes.
We reach the benches. We sit. I attempt my scrub jay call. It fails. I play a recording of the call. Within moments, a tiny grey and blue bird lights on the lowest branch of a pine tree 20 feet away, then another. I move toward the bird, who looks down at me and cocks her head.
"There's another," Barry calls softly, and I turn and he's pointing to yet another bird. Three scrub jays! Make that four; there's another higher in a pine tree. Feeling hopeful — and only a little silly — I hold out my hand. The bird closest to me peers at the hand and grows disinterested; we regard each other a while longer, me with far more curiosity, until the birds leave. We continue on the path, and about 20 feet later, find a brilliant azure and gray scrub jay — a male — at eye level in a bush five feet off the trail. He, too, stares at me and, deciding I pose no threat (and offer no food) flutters to a nearby branch.
I have lived in Florida for 37 years. I have spent considerable time in swamp, scrub, forest and sinks. This is the first time I have ever seen a scrub jay. I think about the unseen birds, waiting in the brush, restricted by development to preserves like these, dependent on our government to protect these small, sweet families.
And, well, if we can't, at least we had the Roeblings and the Archbolds and, more recently, Dr. Bowman. We count on them to keep these endangered creatures protected and safe — and accessible to us. When we leave, I'm already planning my return.
After all, I still haven't seen an indigo snake.