In Florida, Audubon discovered 52 types of birds new to him. His letters home and other published writings also recorded the scenery, settlements, and colorful inhabitants. Some of these descriptions were published in his Ornithological Biography, and several of his bird plates illustrated frontier conditions.
Despite troubles with Creeks and Seminoles, in 1831, Florida was enjoying a period of peace from oversea invasion, and plate 269 showed the old Spanish cannon lying unused on the beach below the Castillo de San Marco in St. Augustine. Audubon, however, did not enjoy his stay in this lovely old city. "St. Augustine," Audubon wrote Lucy on November 23, 1831, "resembles some old French village" with "streets about 10 feet wide and deeply sanded."
Audubon boarded at a tavern for $4.50 a week. Although he dined upon "hare, fish and venison" three times a day, he complained about the company, "principally poor Fisherman," and he grumbled about supplies: "I wish thee to forward me," he wrote his wife, "some good socks...the salt marshes through which I am forced to wade every day are the ruin of everything."
Although timber on public land was reserved for the United States Navy, the federal government was unable to police cutting in Florida. The timber thieves, whom Audubon called "live-oakers," came from the northeastern states during the winter months and cut down live oaks like those shown in plate 247, the "Hooping" crane. Audubon's humor was more consistent than his spelling. "Their provisions," he wrote with some envy, "consist of beef, pork, potatoes, biscuit, flour, rice, and fish together with excellent whiskey."
"This is the way in which we spend the day," Audubon reported of his Florida work in 1831. "We get into a boat, and after an hour of hard rowing, we find ourselves in the middle of most extensive marshes, as far as the eye can reach. The boat is anchored, and we go wading through mud and water, amid myriads of sand-flies and mosquitoes, shooting here and there a bird." Audubon wanted to hire some helpers, but the "residents of St. Augustine," he found were "all too leazy [sic] to work, or if they work," their high prices "put it out of the question to employ them." Plate 387, the glossy ibis, shows the simple wooden buildings and split-rail fences typical of the surrounding countryside.
By late winter, grey wetland Florida had defeated Audubon's spirit: "We are surrounded by thousands of Alligators and I dare not suffer my...good Newfoundland Dog Plato to go in the River." Disappointed, he returned to Charleston, South Carolina, but decided to give Florida a second chance. Audubon by now was a celebrity, the "American Woodsman," and the federal government assisted his efforts with sea passage to the Florida Keys on the U.S. Cutter Marion.
Audubon arrived in the Florida Keys in late April of 1832. As the Marion approached safe harbor at Indian Key, Audubon recalled that his "heart swelled with uncontrollable delight." "The air," he wrote Lucy, "was darkened by whistling wings." Audubon's enthusiasm was contagious, and he collected liberally with the aid of a pilot, cook, and "sturdy crew" armed with guns. The "mass of birds" obtained, Audubon boasted, looked like a "small haycock." On Sandy Key, nests were so numerous that "ere long we had a heap of eggs that promised delicious food."
Although Audubon was a worldly man who desired fame and fortune, in Florida, he found himself "increasingly amazed at the appearance of things."