Adventure in the Sun
III—To Flamingo Land (Sunday Times, April 15, 1956)
By Ian Fleming
After the age of forty, time begins to be important, and one is inclined to say “Yes” to every experience. One should, of course, be taught to say “Yes” from childhood, but Wet Feet, Catching Cold, Getting a Temperature and Breaking Something add up to a traumatic “No” that is apt to become a permanent ball-and-chain.
ESSENTIAL YOU ACCOMPANY FIRST SCIENTIFIC VISIT SINCE 1916 TO FLAMINGO COLONY INAGUA MARCH FIFTEEN STOP PARTY CONSISTS ARTHUR VERNAY PRESIDENT BAHAMAS FLAMINGO PROTECTION SOCIETY COMMA ROBERT MURPHY OF AMERICAN NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM AND SELF STOP FAIL NOT BRYCE.
I had only one week of my Jamaica holiday left to me and I am not particularly interested in flamingoes. I looked up Inagua on a map. It looked remote and exciting.
I cabled back “Yes” and flew up to Nassau on March 13 and spent two nights in a remarkable tropic folly and bird sanctuary called Xanadu which my friend Ivar Bryce has built in a remote corner of the island. There, in between the feverish life of Nassau and exploring the off-shore waters of Xanadu, I learnt about the Society for the Protection of the Flamingo in the Bahamas.
The flamingo, like so many other rare and beautiful species of birds, is disappearing from the Bahamas, its traditional habitat, as from other parts of the world. For example, in 1940 there were 10,000 on the island of Andros in the Bahamas. Today there are ten. People are beginning to worry about animal and bird species being wiped off the face of the globe, and Mr. Arthur Vernay, who lives in Nassau and is an explorer and naturalist of distinction, decided three years ago to do something about it. He formed the society, enlisted world-wide support, and set to work to save the flamingo.
At dawn on March 15, crushed together in a tiny CESNA plane, we flew the 400 miles down the beautiful necklace of the Bahama Group to Inagua, where there is the largest flamingo colony in the world. The object of the expedition was to make an approximate count of the colony and to see that the society’s protective measures were working well on the eve of the mating season.
Inagua is the most southerly of the Bahama Islands and it lies about 100 miles north of the famous Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. It is a hideous island and nobody in his senses ever goes near the place. It is known only for its flamingoes and its salt industry and, apart from its bird-life, its only redeeming feature is the charming Ericson family, originally from Boston, who work the salt and are the royalty of the island. Inagua is a British possession, but if the Ericsons don’t want you there the island’ will give you no welcome. They employ the entire population of 1,000 souls and the last thing they want is the coming of tourists or of any other “civilizing” influence. I don’t think they need worry.
We stayed the night with this admirable and splendidly feudal family in Mathew Town, a scatter of more-or-less solid shacks with a fine lighthouse. a hard hot wind that makes any form of garden impossible (the few plants are protected by great ugly sheets of tin), one communal store and a mound of salt awaiting shipment. We learned a great deal about salt. We were also told that it was lucky we hadn’t arrived a few weeks later in the mosquito season.
The mosquitoes on the salt pans are so thick that they literally choke you. The wild donkeys that infest the island are killed by them Their bites are nothing. They smother by their numbers. As our hosts talked. I could sense the millions of larvae stirring hungrily in the mangrove, swamps and on the salt pans. Even in the comfortable house, there was the whiff of tropical marsh gas brought by the hot maddening wind. Islands in the Sun? There are many kinds of them.
We left before dawn on a lorry with the two Bahamian bird wardens. Bryce and I sat with Dr. Robert Murphy in garden chairs placed on the platform of-the truck—a fine way to ride and see the country. We drove through the acres of salt pans, great ghastly expanses of brine, white and crusty at the edges, drying in the hot wind that is vital to the industry, to the edge of Lake Windsor, the hundred square miles of brackish water that covers the centre of the island.
Only the light and the sky redeem this dreadful lake. Dreadful? Well, its base is marl mud, very fine in texture and the colour of a corpse. The lake is only two to three feet deep for the whole of its area, and the bottom is pockmarked every few feet with sharp limestone coral excrescences. The shores and cays are thick with mangroves, straggly and leggy, from which came the rotten-egg smell of the marsh gas in which we lived for two days. And yet it was also wonderful. The great mirrored expanse of water through which we were pushed for ten miles in flat-bottomed boats, the mirages, the silence, the sense of being on Mars. And then the birds.
Flamingoes? Every horizon was shocking pink with them, hundreds of them, thousands of them, reflected double in the blue-green glass of the lake, talking away and going about their business in huge congregations that literally owned this world across which we were moving like waterboatmen across a pond.
As we got closer to a group, the necks would start craning, and the chuckling, honking talk would redouble as if gangsters were spied approaching a great fashionable garden party. At first there would be a slow and stately walking away, an aloof withdrawal, and then one nerve would break and with great hurrying strides a single bird would scamper a dozen leggy steps to gain momentum and the great red wings would open and suddenly he was up with the long red legs tucked under his tail. And then, one by one, the others would follow, until at last all were in the air and making, with stately wing-beat, for the lea of a mangrove cay farther up the lake.
Fabulous birds, seven feet across the wings, perhaps six from orange beak to claw tip, and, under the wings, a great dash of black primary feathers. Not handsome, except in their flame-red colour and the grace of their flight, and their heads remind one of bottle-openers, but bizarre in their strange beauty, like great red and black bombers, purposeful and awe-inspiring.
New horizons opened up, all quivering with pink. The excitement of my expert companions was great. It was clear that the protective measures carried out by the society—the appointment of the wardens, the strict policing of the lake against pilferers of eggs and young (flamingo tongues are considered a great delicacy) and the regulations against low-flying aircraft had, within little more than two years, been dramatically successful, and in this time one of the major spectacles in the world of birds had been created. Dr. Robert Murphy, who had been alternately gazing through binoculars and writing busily in his notebook ever since we had sighted our first banana quit in Mathew Town, organised an industrious “count” which rapidly climbed into the thousands, and there was much informed talk about mating dances and the colour-cycle, which is from pure white through grey to pink and then red flame.
I felt left out and racked my brains for an ornithological gambit, however modest. I could only think to ask if this flamingo, which is the American flamingo, or Phoenicopterus Ruber, was the largest red bird in the world. I spent some time clothing this juvenile question, in the appropriate mumbojumbology. Finally: “Would you say, Doctor, that the overall dimensions of’ the Phoenicopterus are the largest of any rubrous bird?” “Yes,” said Dr. Murphy briefly, and I felt like the triangle player in an orchestra who has managed to hit his triangle at the right place in the score.
In fact Dr. Murphy, who has just-retired as chairman of the Department of Birds in the American Museum of Natural History, although he is one of the greatest ornithologists who has ever lived, is entirely human, a splendid and most entertaining companion and the only man I have met who could make scrambled eggs with a basis of Nestlés condensed milk (sweetened). He also has the supreme distinction (which I mentioned in an earlier article) of bearing the fang-marks of a fer-de-lance on his ankle.
It took us three hours to reach Long Cay, where our tent was pitched and where we had breakfast. Then we went on again, now under a blazing sun, towards the ever-retreating horizon, behind which we hoped to find the first nesting-colony of the flamingoes. But we were a week or so early. The birds had not yet started to build those extraordinary townships of foot-high mud volcanoes in whose crater they lay one large amateurish white egg. So the boats were pushed on again, deep into the mangrove swamps, where a myriad other sea birds were already nesting and where the tumult and the stench were at times almost overwhelming.
Here were great colonies of the Louisiana Heron, the Black-necked Stilt, flocks of which skimmed round us with astonishing beauty and precision, American and Reddish Egrets and other exotic birds, and here, on wading through a marsh that bubbled with gas, we came upon a combination of bird colours that outdid even the spectacular flamingoes.
First there was an unexpected swarm of our familiar Double-crested Cormorants, perching in ranks of black witness among the low trees; then, above and around them, the noise of our arrival had exploded hundreds of Roseate Spoon-bills and white Egrets into the sky. The combination of black and white and pale pink against the vivid green of the mangroves and the deep blue sky gave an impression of some extraordinary daylight firework display in which the rockets always went on bursting.
As I stood up to my knees in the mud and gazed with awe on the great wheeling galaxies of black and white and pink, my companions were more scientifically engaged photographing the nests full of eggs and young with which each mangrove bush was laden, and I am glad to say that not only this extraordinary place but also the whole expedition has been recorded by Dr. Murphy upon countless rolls of colour film.
Towards evening, and after many other bird species had been identified, we trekked back to our tent on the Cay and at once stripped off our clothes and lay down in the lake to relieve our sunburn and get rid of some of the mud. It was then clear why Lake Windsor on Inagua will always be one of the great bird preserves of the world, for the shallow waters are almost solid with food. No sooner had we lain down than countless tiny fish no longer than a thumb-nail came to nibble us and we found that the silt beneath our bodies was largely composed of minute shells and fingernail clams—ideal fare for the curiously shaped beak of the flamingo with its reversed scooping motion.
The rest of our expedition was more or less an extension of what I have already described. The final estimate of the flamingo colony of Inagua was 15,000, and, if this year’s hurricanes miss the island, the nesting season, which will now be under way, will perhaps add another 5,000. A film of the colony will shortly be made by. Mr. Robert P. Allen (the Audubon Society associate who, more or less single-handed, saved the Whooping Crane from extinction) and the public will then be able to see for themselves that the labours of Mr. Arthur Vernay and his society have added considerably to the beauty of the world.
As a postscript to these notes on Inagua I should mention that an exceptionally interesting man died on the island last year. He was a very aged fisherman and, two or three times each year, for many years past , he would slip quietly into the Commissioner’s office, which also serves as a rudimentary bank for the Inaguans. Without saying anything, he would place upon the Commissioner’s table a neat pile of Spanish doubloons of the sixteenth century. After receiving pound notes in exchange for his gold, he would leave as discreetly as he had come.
Now the old fisherman has died, and his secret has died with him. but it seems clear that, in or around Inagua, there is something else beside salt and flamingoes.
This is the last of Ian Fleming’s three articles about the out-of-the-way things which befell film on his latest visit to Jamaica. The previous articles appeared on April 1 and 8.