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FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF MIAMI
IT is Sunday, the 19th of January. A week ago I was sitting before a fire, watching the snow fall outside, in winter-bound Massachusetts. This forenoon I am reclining in the shade of a cocoanut palm, looking across the smooth blue waters of Biscayne Bay to a line of woods, I know not how many miles distant, broken in the midst by a narrow cut or inlet (Norris Cut, a passer-by tells me it is called), through which is to be seen the open Atlantic. The air is motionless, the sky cloudless, the temperature ideal. “This is the day the Lord hath made,” I repeat to myself. He has seldom done better.
I left Boston Monday morning, spent that night and the next day in Washington, slept in. St. Augustine Wednesday night, and on Thursday took the long, all-day ride down the east coast of Florida, past miles on miles of orange groves and pineapple plantations, to the terminus of the railroad, the new and flourishing city of Miami.
My visit, it must be owned, began rather inauspiciously. It was nobody’s fault, of course, but the “magic city” did not put its best foot forward. Friday morning the mercury stood at forty-five, and although the day was abundantly warm out of doors, — so warm that a walker naturally took off his coat, — an oil stove proved a comfort at nightfall. In short, the day was exactly like a White Mountain day in late September, hot in the middle and cool at both ends. Yesterday, however, was a piece of Massachusetts June, while this morning is so perfect that every one, visitor or resident, passes comments upon it. Perfection of any kind is a rare and precious thing, — in this world, at least, — and though it be merely a bit of weather, it should never go unspoken of. So I say to myself as I lie in the shade, and look and breathe.
In truth, I can hardly feel it credible that I was in the midst of snowstorms less than a week ago. For a long two days winter has seemed a thing utterly past and forgotten. Only now and then it comes upon me, with the shock of unexpected news, that this is not summer, but January.
The bay, for some reason to me unknown, is almost without birds. The only one just now in sight is a cormorant pretty far offshore, diving and swimming by turns. I imagine him to be a loon till suddenly he takes wing, with outstretched neck, and after a long flight comes to rest, not in the water, but at the top of a stake. Somewhere behind me a flicker is shouting as in springtime, and on one side a mockingbird is calling (“smacking” is the word that comes of itself to my pencil), and a blue-gray gnatcatcher utters now and then a fine, thread-like ejaculation.
The stillness is really a relief, even to my ornithological ears; for though they had been starved for two or three months in Massachusetts, they have been so dinned with bird voices for the last two days that a brief period of silence is grateful. The centre of the town, where I have taken up my abode, literally swarms with fish crows and boat-tailed grackles, every one trying, as it seems, to outdo its rivals in noisiness. I remember the day, eight or nine years ago, when in the flatwoods of New Smyrna I spent an hour of almost painful excitement in taking observations upon the first boat-tail I had ever seen. It would have been hard at that moment for me to imagine that so clever and interesting a bird could ever become a nuisance. Fortunately, both crow and grackle retire to roost early and are comparatively late risers; otherwise the people of Miami might be driven to violent measures, as against a plague. As things are, the birds have no fears. They alight in the shade trees before the windows, or gather about the kitchen door, crows and blackbirds alike (and the male blackbirds, with their overgrown tails, are almost or quite as large as the crows), as fearless as so many English sparrows.
After them the abundant birds hereabout, so far as I have yet discovered, are buzzards, carrion crows (black vultures), blue jays, catbirds (which I have never seen half so plentiful), palm warblers, myrtle warblers, and blue-gray gnat- catchers. Less numerous, but still decidedly common, are flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, mockingbirds, Florida yellow-throats, hummingbirds, ground doves, and phoebes. Day before yesterday a long procession of tree swallows straggled past me as I wandered along the bay shore, and in the same place a flock of masculine red-winged blackbirds were holding a vociferous mid-winter convention in a thicket of tall reeds. White-eyed vireos are well distributed, and sing as saucily as if the month were May instead of January. Solitary vireos are present likewise, but I have seen only one, and he was not yet in tune.
Out in the pine lands I came upon a single group of pine warblers and half a dozen bluebirds, both singing freely. What a voice the bluebird has! It does a Yankee’s heart good to hear it. I have yet to see a robin or a chickadee.
All in all, notwithstanding the woods are alive with wings, there is surprisingly little music. The season of song is not yet come. Phoebes, for some reason, form a bright exception to the rule, and now and then a cardinal grosbeak whistles with a sweetness that beggars words. Twice, I think, I have heard a distant mockingbird singing, and yesterday, in front of the hotel, I stopped to watch a pair that seemed to be in what I should call a decidedly lyrical mood, though they were silent as dead men. They stood on the pavement a foot or so apart, and took turns in a very original and pretty kind of dance. One and then the other suddenly hopped straight upward for an inch or two, both feet at once. Between whiles they stood motionless, or sometimes one (always the same) moved a little away from its partner. Plainly they were much in earnest, and without question the ceremony, simple, and almost laughable, as it looked, had some deep and perfectly understood significance. Ritualism is not confined to churches. Everywhere the heart speaks by attitude and gesticulation.
A noble concert it will be when all these thousands of song birds recover their voices. May I be here to enjoy it. For the present I am contented to wait. It is sufficient just now to be in so strange a land in so lovely a season, with acres of morning-glories and moon-flowers all about, roses and marigolds in the gardens, birds in every bush (not an English sparrow among them), airs gratefully cool from the sea, and bright summer weather. For a winter-killed Yankee, this is what old Omar would have called “Paradise enow.”