The thing about birding is - eventually you have to go places you would not normally go to see birds you would not normally see. Southern Florida is a place I would not normally go. It is flat, hot, humid, gets hit by hurricanes, and is mostly owned by developers who build mile after mile of look alike strip malls. But it does have a few places that intrigue me.
The Florida Keys, for example: a long, curving line of small islands stretching across shallow oceans for some 200 miles, if you take them all the way out to the Dry Tortugas. Several pulp fiction writers base their eccentric characters in these tropical islands and waters. Sampling the setting has long been a draw for me, getting a taste for how these writers filter the Florida atmosphere and scratch at its underbelly, just as Archer Mayor filters Brattleboro and scratches its underbelly.
That’s one magnetism of southern Florida, albeit, a weak one. The other magnetism, a much stronger one is, of course, the birds. There are birds found in the Florida Keys that are very hard to find anywhere else within the borders of the United States except in those barely above sea level, tropical islands.
In mid-April I traveled to southern Florida and I had the good fortune to see some of those birds. They fell into roughly two categories: the ones that were easy to get to but hard to find, and the ones that were harder to get to but easy to find.
The latter category - hard to get to but easy to find - are the birds of the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are seventy miles from Key West, the southernmost inhabitable island of the Florida Keys. With no potable water, the keys of the Dry Tortugas are not inhabitable, although that did not deter the U.S. Army from building Fort Jefferson on Garden Key beginning in 1846. It is now a national park.
I had two choices for seeing the birds of these remote pieces of land. One was an expensive, three day, guided birding trip, with overnight anchorage within sight of nesting rarities. The other was a one day trip on a national park concessionaire’s fast boat. I chose the shorter and cheaper trip.
I had hoped that the two hour trip to Fort Jefferson would provide some good pelagic birding. Unfortunately, the boat was too fast and the seas too high to allow for any near approach to birds or use of binoculars. I saw a few gulls near the harbor, occasional gannets and pelicans, and a couple of small groups of egrets, probably Cattle Egrets, crossing the open expanse of ocean. Sometime in the 1870s and 1880s, these remarkable birds crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to South America, and by the 1950s had expanded to North America. Seeing them thirty miles from the nearest land provided a first-hand experience of their ability.
As soon as we docked on Garden Key, the situation was very different, and I quickly joined other bird watchers who were peering across the shallow water at Bush Key. If it weren’t for park regulations, uniformed rangers, and a large sign discernible to all but the most myopic and warning “Island Closed,” it would have been easy to wade over to this place of such intense interest. Bush Key - its sandy shore, scrubby vegetation, and the skies overhead - teemed with thousands of birds. We were looking at a nesting colony for an estimated 25,000 pairs of Sooty Terns and 2,000 pairs of Brown Noddies (a tern relative). On other nearby keys, there are also nesting colonies of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Masked Boobies (closely related to the Northern Gannet which breeds in the north Atlantic). Occasional rarities also get thrown into the breeding mix, but I was quite content simply to look in awe at birds which roam the tropical oceans, coming to shore only to nest, and then do so by the thousands.
The Brown Noddies perched on the old docks of Fort Jefferson, so there were good looks to be had of this bird. Not so the Sooty Terns. They kept their distance; they were on and above their breeding grounds on the nearby key. They were noisy. Old sailors used to call them, “wide-awake.” My source did not explain whether the name came about because they are noisy by day and by night, or because their noise kept everyone else awake day and night. Audubon, who likes to pass along the observations of others, does not record this name from his visit to the Tortugas aboard a U.S. revenue cutter, but does refer to the Sooty Tern as the “Black and White Sea Swallow,” a name which describes the bird’s plumage and swallow-like flight pattern.
On this same trip, Audubon was also told that the other sea swallows “were called Noddies, because they frequently alighted on the yards of vessels at night, and slept there.” That’s one explanation for the name, “Noddy.” The other explanation suggests that the name means “simpleton,” and was given by sailors because it was too dumb to take flight when they approached. Audubon reports that the Brown Noddies stayed on the ground when sailors went ashore to gather their eggs, whereas the Sooty Terns took flight in mass.
It was certainly the case that I saw thousands of Sooty Terns in flight above Bush Key, their noise carrying easily across the water, and that I saw dozens of Brown Noddies perched on old pilings, unconcerned about those strange creatures peering at them with funny things on their eyes.
When I needed to rest from viewing the terns and noddies, I looked up. Above Fort Jefferson there were always a few, sometimes a dozen or more, Magnificent Frigatebirds. They floated effortlessly, as though gravity had no meaning to them. With long, pointed wings that span eight feet, these birds are masters of the air. They can’t walk, they can’t sit, and they can’t swim. They can perch on a tree limb, channel marker, or ship rigging. And they can fly! They soar magnificently, staying aloft for hours, leading some to speculate that they sleep on the wing. Nimbly they plunge to grab prey from the water, “See him now!,” wrote Audubon, “Yonder, over the waves leaps the brilliant dolphin, as he pursues the flying-fishes, which he expects to seize the moment they drop into water. The Frigate-bird, who has marked them, closes his wings, dives toward them, and now ascending, holds one of the tiny things across his bill.”
Or the frigatebird may leave fishing to other birds, preferring to steal from a gull or gannet, even forcing the victim to disgorge from its gullet what it has caught and swallowed. Hence sailors named it for the fast sailing frigate, preferred vessel for pirates and privateers looking to rob a slower moving vessel.
The frigatebirds entranced me. Mesmerized, I watched them suspended on a spot high above. Then a wing adjusted and a bird rode higher in a tight circle, to a great altitude, until it was a small speck. Another drifted, aimlessly it seemed, but calmly and easily riding the winds and air currents. Over and over I forced my attention somewhere else, to the ramparts, the garden like parade ground, the swirling terns or perching noddies. Until another frigatebird dipped nearby drawing my attention as it floated along. It was good birding!
Sometime soon I’ll tell you about the hard to find birds in the easy to get to places.