Birds, Photography, Key West, Whatnot

Another Old Column About Bats

Stalking the Velvety Freetail
From The Key West Citizen
July 31, 2005

By Mark Hedden

The goats, standing on top of the Seminole Battery, reared up, butted heads, then nuzzled each other in the waning light.

Just afterwards a cop car came down the street towards where I sat, slowed, then stopped between me and the goats. A few seconds later the window came down and the cop sat there staring at me.

Finally he said "You all right"

I said, "Yup."

There was an expectant pause which I debated on filling.

Part of me realized that the officer was just trying to do his job, and that a long-haired white guy sitting on the curb and staring off into space at the intersection of Fort and Olivia, a block away from the easiest place to buy drugs in Key West, was arguably suspect.

But part of me thought, this is America, damming, and I should be able to sit on the curb and stare into space without having to explain myself.

"What're you doing" the cop finally asked.

"Looking for bats," I said.


"Fifteen hundred of them," I said, and then explained.

The bats were locally famous for a while. They lived in a gap in the walls in the Monroe County School Board storage building on United Street. Just after dusk every night, when it was warm enough for the bugs to be active, they came flying out of a hole surrounding a second floor drain pipe.

It wasn't clockwork but it was regular. If guests came to town, going to see them was a nice activity that didn't involve either mixed drinks or fried food.

You hear about places like Austin or Gainesville, where the bat colonies seem to explode all at once and move around in the air together in big massive clouds. These bats didn't do that. It might have been because the drainpipe was so narrow, but these bats came out two or three at a time in endless small waves, and after they came out they skittered around for a few seconds, then dispersed for the night.

The one time you did see them form a cloud was in the morning, just before the sun came back up, presumably because they had to wait their turn to get back in through the drainpipe.

It was when they were circling one morning that Tony Barroso -- an early riser whose plumbing company shirts bear the slogan "The No. 1 Man in the No. 2 Business" -- noticed them. He told Fran Ford, doyenne of the Florida Keys Audubon Society. Fran told everybody else.

Soon there were small groups of people gathered every night to watch the show.

The species had about six different names -- Cuban house bat, velvety free tailed bat, Pallus mastiff and Molossus molossus tropidorhynchus among them.

Estimations of the colony's population varied between 1,500 and 3,000 bats. (They were hard to count precisely.) Mixed in, to keep you on your toes, were a half-dozen albino individuals.

In the spring there was an American Kestrel that would show up just before dusk, wait outside the hole, and nab one of the bats for an easy evening meal. (It was kind of like the bats had to live out a version Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" every night.) There was a less regular Chuck-will's-widow that did the same thing, though where the kestrel liked to shred his meal slowly, the Chuck tended to swallow his live and whole. (This seemed closer to Jonah in the belly of the whale story-wise.)

For a while the School Board made rumblings about wanting to get rid of the bats, of wanting to wait until they went out one night and then sealing off the hole. Apparently there was a fear of rabidity.

Fran Ford lobbied heavily against this plan, pointing out that no member of the species had ever been known to have rabies and that the bats were beneficial, as they ate half their body weight in insects every night, and also that if you sealed them out you'd kill all the young inside, which would smell, and the bats would then probably just find their way into another part of the building anyhow.

In the evenings she went down to the colony and handed out flyers to people, telling them to call their district's school board members.

Anyone who knows Fran Ford knows that she is very charming, as well as both an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

Eventually the School Board did the smart thing and said the bats could stay.

Rejoicing ensued. Fran got her picture in Audubon magazine for her efforts. All was right in the local world of bats.

Then one night the bats didn't come out. It wasn't anything dramatic. It wasn't like they all ate some kind of poison and died. (Again, you'd smell it.) Apparently they'd just moved on.

You'd think it would be impossible to lose track of 1,500 of anything, but that's what happened.

In the year and a half since there have been sporadic sightings of individuals, but no leads as to where the new colony or colonies might be.

Then last week I was coming out of Bucco's Courthouse Deli when I ran into John Vagnoni, manager of the Green Parrot. He said he'd been driving on Fort Street with his son at about ten o'clock one night when his son pointed out a cloud of a few thousand bats circling in the pink glow of a street light. It was amazing, he said. He even went and got his camera to take pictures. (They can be seen on the Parrot's blog, on the June 14 entry.)

Which is how I ended up sitting on a curb in Bahama Village, explaining myself to a cop who, once he realized I wasn't up to anything nefarious, seemed kind of interested in the bats, saying as he left that maybe he'd stop back later, just in case they showed up.

I figured if they were anywhere in the neighborhood they were in the batteries, the abandoned piles of dirt and old concrete just over the fence on the Truman Annex Navy Base.

I pictured the sun going down and the bats coming out, maybe an explosion of them this time, maybe a cloud so big they startled the small herd of head-butting goats the Navy keeps on top of the battery to keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

But it never happened. The sun went down, the mosquitos bit at my ankles, the cop stopped back, looked a little bit disappointed that there were no bats, then went about his rounds.

Eventually I just went home.

Which means the bats are still out there somewhere. If you see them let me know.

An Old Column About Bats In Key West

From the Key West Citizen
August 5, 2002


All eyes were on a small gray hole surrounding a drainpipe high on the building's southwest corner. The sun was setting. The mosquitoes were starting to bite.

Finally the first bat emerged from the hole, leapt into the air and took off for the tree line. Soon a group of two or three other bats followed, then a group of five or six, leaping into the air like paratroopers and then buzzing off like wind-up toys, seeming to go three directions at once. They kept coming for close to 20 minutes.

"You could set your watch by them," said Tony Barosso, the bats' most dedicated and regular observer.

The bats are members of the species Molossus molossus tropidorhynchus. There are about 1,200 to 2,000 of them living between the walls of the Monroe County School Board's storage building in the 1200 block of United Street.

They're also known as Pallus mastiff bats, Cuban house bats, rat bats and velvety freetailed bats. Molossus mollusus is common throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Molossus mollusus tropidorhynchus is an endemic Cuban subspecies and that island's most abundant city-dwelling bat.

How long they've been in Key West, and how they got here, can only be speculated upon.

"People tend not to notice bats," said Stephen Humphrey, dean of the University of Florida's College of Natural Resources and Environment.

"If you go out to watch the twilight, most people come in before the bats begin to fly. I've run into this my whole life. People have bats in their attic all the time. They just don't know it," he said.

Humphrey admires bats enough to have bought property that contains both a cave and a population of bats numbering in the hundreds of thousands in an area outside Gainesville.

"No scientists think that these bats are migratory, but it is common for bats that are colonial to disperse during the nonmaternal season and then reform the colony when the females are pregnant and stay together while they are lactating," he said.

Which is why the bats might seem like newcomers to the neighborhood.

"The bats probably flew here themselves," said Phil Frank, manager of the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. "But there is always the remote possibility that these are the descendants of Richter Clyde Perky's bats," referring to the bats that may or may not have lived in the bat tower Perky build on Sugarloaf Key in 1929 in an early attempt at mosquito control.

Frank said it was long believed by the scientific community that there were no resident bats in the Florida Keys.

"But being a local, everybody was always hearing these rumors about bats. And finally I got lucky," said Frank.

In 1996 a woman living on Stock Island called him and complained that bats had taken over her attic.

"It was unique, because not only was this the first documented real-live occurrence of bats in the Keys, it was also the first record of this species in the United States. It's not often you find a new critter in the U.S.A. right under people's noses, so to speak. It was kind of cool," said Frank.

Frank later wrote two peer-reviewed papers on the bats, and said he still drives around with a bat detector - a small electronic device that can listen in on bats echolocation signals - in his car.

"Once people educate themselves that the bats aren't really harmful, they seem to think they're pretty cool," said Frank.

Bats may be one of the most misunderstood members of the animal kingdom.

For the record: They are mammals, they are not rodents. They don't suck blood - well, three species do, but they all live in Central America. They're not blind, they don't get stuck in people's hair and they are very rarely rabid. (About .5 percent to 1 percent are, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, which also points out that you are more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by a power mower than bitten by a rabid bat.)

Bats consume between 1,000 and 3,000 insects a night, up to half their body weight. They bear their young live, have fur and echolocate to find their way in the dark, having a sense of hearing so sensitive that they can detect a single hair floating in the air in front of them. The Molossus molossus is two to four inches long and sleeps clutched to the wall, not hanging upside down.

The only downside of a resident bat population seems to be the guano, which, if left unchecked, can slowly fill up a room. In the school board building on United Street, though, it spills out through a small crack in the base of the wall in which the bats live. A box installed below the crack catches the small, dry pellets so they can be scooped up and removed easily.

Tony Barosso does the chore regularly. He's not squeamish about such things. His plumbing company's shirts bear the slogan "The No. 1 Man In The No. 2 Business."

And the guano is something of a commodity, known to horticulturists as one of the world's great fertilizers. The Key West Garden Club has already asked for the first shipment.

The parking lot, which is on the backside of the building on Seminary Street, has unexpectedly become one of Key West's wildlife-viewing hot spots. A dozen or so people gather nightly to see the show. More astute members of the crowd have noted that there are three albino members of the colony.

"It's liking watching fireworks or something. You're waiting to go 'Ooh, ahh,'" said bakery owner Kurt Matarazzo on his first trip to see the bats.

"So this will be the new Key West tradition," said Beth Scribner, a Duval Street merchant. "Instead of going to Mallory Square, people will come here."

Barosso's wife, Sue, thinks he's getting a bit obsessed.

"He gets up every morning at five o'clock and says 'I've got to go see my bats,'" she said. "I go back to bed."

Barosso denies this, saying that since he's learned the bats' schedule - out at 8:15 p.m. in the evening, back at 6:30 a.m. in the morning - he usually gets out of bed around 6:00 a.m.

"I get up, I go to La Dichosa to get my coffee and I come back and watch them," he said. "I like it the mornings better. It's prettier. They all gather and they swirl around, waiting to get in. Two or three are always trying to get into the hole at the same time so they bump each other out of the way."

A Conversation with Carol Munder

So last winter I had a chance to speak onstage with photographer and printmaker Carol Munder about her work, Etruscan figurines, her time in Key West, and a few other subjects. It was part of the Friends of the Key West Library lecture series.

Munder is one of my favorite artists, as well as one of my favorite people to talk to, so I loved putting this together. The first four-and-a half minutes are an audio recording which segue into a video of the rest of the talk. It's a handheld phone video, so it has a nice Cinéma vérité/Zapruder film quality to it. But the important thing is getting to listen to Carol talk.

You can see some of her work on her website:

You can read a piece I wrote about Munder and her work here at the Miami Rail

Aboard the USNS Spearhead

I had a chance to go along with ace radio reporter Nancy Klingener for a tour of the USNS Spearhead when it was in Key West last month. It looks like something from a Ridley Scott movie and it's a pretty incredible ship – essentially the Navy's hyper-modern high seas pick up truck. Complex and minimalist all at the same time. 

Read or listen to Nancy's story here on the WLRN website.

Below is a gallery of photos from the tour. Mouse over for captions.

Pelicans are awesome, Laughing Gulls are assholes

I was out at the Dry Tortugas the other day, trying to get a picture of a Roseate Tern feeding, when I shot off a few frames of a Brown Pelican diving. I never get tired of seeing Brown Pelicans. They're kind of like the John Goodman of the bird world – big and goofy looking, but amazingly graceful. I think of them as role models.

Anyhow, caught a few frames of the pelican diving, then the splash, and then a few of a Laughing Gull, being an asshole and stealing unearned fish. (You can see the whole sequence below.)

In proper scientific terms it's called kleptoparasitism – one bird stealing food from another as part of a foraging strategy. And it's not a new thing. Laughing Gulls have been ripping off Brown Pelicans like this for tens of thousands of years. Since before our kind ever scratched the first picture of a stag on the wall of a cave.

The mechanics work like this: the pelican flies around until it seas some fish, then plunges head first into the water, opening it's mouth and taking in about 20 pints of water and fish. Kind of like a seine net. Except a seine net doesn't hold water like a pelican's pouch – properly called a gulag sack – does.

So the pelican has to open it's mouth a little to let the water drain out before it can be light enough to fly again. And while it's sitting there with its mouth open, the Laughing Gulls will swoop in, jab their bills into the gap, steal a fish, and take off. If the pelican doesn't open his mouth, the Laughing Gulls will sometimes fly in and stand on his head until he does.

It's kind of a fish tax. An evolved, but not symbiotic, relationship.

It's nature and really, you shouldn't judge. But how can you not take sides? Laughing Gulls are assholes.

The Vodka House

People just call it the Vodka House.

It's on the 1000 block of Watson Street in Key West, just off Truman, on the opposite side of Bare Assets strip club. I don't know anyone who's seen it and not been gobsmacked.

It is an entire house decorated in lit up empty vodka bottles. There are several sizes of bottles used in the display, but they are all the same label: Skol.

It shows some serious dedication, not just to the hours of ingenious design and execution, but to the drinking of one type of vodka. Skol is not exactly a top shelf brand.

People tend to pull up on bikes or in cars, get out, and stare for a few minutes. Then usually say something like, "Wow. Just wow." At least that was the pattern when I was out there they other night, taking pictures.

At one point one of the people who lived there came out and someone said, "Your house is beautiful, but that is a terrible vodka."

The person who lived there gave a pretty good argument about how Skol is a much better vodka than more heavily marketed brand like Absolute. He also said he could make a much articulate argument in favor of Skol if, you know, he was sober. Then he bid everyone goodnight and retreated indoors.

They've been decorating the house like this for two or three years. I believe the passed out Santa is a new addition for 2013.

There's a For Sale sign on the building, so I worry it won't be there next year.

But either way you should see it if you can.

Nothing better than when people find the beauty that everyone else overlooked.

Detail photos below.

In Which I Am Nearly Killed (Killed!) By A Flying Iguana

Sunday morning. Coffee and the New York times. Reading a story in the Style section about how hard it is to break up with someone in the age of social media because you keep seeing the details of their lives on Facebook.

The dog barks. There is a panicked, scrambling noise immediately overhead in the mahogany tree.

I look up to get an unobstructed, full-on pectoral view of a three-and-a-half foot iguana directly above me. At first it is fifteen feet away, the thirteen, then nine. It's feet claw at the empty air.

I leap sideways out of my chair. I think about all those peoples in movies who leap out of the way of explosions, who are sitting at sidewalk cafes and leap out of the way of cars.

I am not one of those leap-out-of-the-way in time people.

I land sideways on the deck. The iguana lands on top of me. The dog barks again but stays three feet back. There is the unforgettable feeling of iguana claws tangled in my t-shirt, and several of the more unpleasant moments of my life.*

The iguana untangles itself, sprint across the deck, dives to the bottom of the pool.

My wife comes out, wants to know why I am sprawled sideways on the deck, laughing like a freak.


*I have been hit by a semi truck while riding a bicycle. I have seen Wayne Newton perform live. I know from unpleasant.

The Kings of America Photo Project

There are two ways to approach talk about a photo project: explain it or don't.

This is a circuitous explaination of The Kings of America Photo Project.

Our friends, the Rowans, one of central clans of Key West, have an annual, sprawling Thanksgiving potluck. Forty, fifty, sixty people show up throughout the day.

Usually the weather has just broken for the season and people pull out their autumnal finery. (Long pants! Sweaters!)

A few years back, son Jason Rowan, a man with a professorial knowledge of cocktails, started the tradition of taking over work shed and temporarily converting it into the Cocktail Shed. A series of complicated and subtle concoctions, handcrafted in small batches amongst the hammers and wood clamps, ensued.

The first drink produced was, I believe the Lord Ottenbottom. Prosecco based, with a sugar cube, the recipe can be found here, at Jason's Embury Cocktails blog. (Actually, just ditch whatever you planning to do with the rest of your day and read the entire blog. But only after you finish reading this entry.)

In years when Jason hasn't been here, others, including me, have stepped in to fill the drink-making void, usually directed via text from Jason wherever he is.

But Jason was here this year. Sitting at a bar the other night, he was talking about making Sbagliatos, a drink accidentally derived from the Negroni when a bartender poured Prosecco into a glass instead of gin.

The name "Sbagliato" actually means mistake.

From there we started talking about Elvis Costello's song "Brilliant Mistake" which contains a couplet that has resonated pretty steadily throughout my life: It was a fine idea at the time / Now it's brilliant mistake.

And we started talking about the whole album, King of America, which was a departure for Costello. He'd pretty much had punk tendencies up until then, but Kind of America was this lush, layered, largely acoustic album, full of shifting evocative, narratives, alternating between joy and despair with acres of ambiguity in between.

And it was decided the shed would have a King of America theme for the day. A playlist, an attitude, drinks with thematic names…

So the first drink – Jason's version of the Sbagliato – was called A Fine Idea, or A Fine Idea At The Time, or Brillant Mistake. I'm not sure if we ever settled it. And why limit yourself to one name?

With the Prosecco instead of gin, it was a good, less alcohol-intense drink for a long day of socializing and eating.

Later in the evening he produced something a little stronger with Mezcal and JimBeam and a few other things. I proposed the name The Lonely Hearts Club Clientele Don't Know What To Do With Their Hands, because it's one of my favorite lines from the song "Our Little Angel" on the album. But no one else was buying in on my version of the name. Jason is vacillating between the name "Good Squad" and "This Years Girl", though neither of those songs is on the album.

Anyhow, with the Drink Shed in Jason's hands, I was looking for a small side project. And I always liked the cover of King of America, in which Costello looks both regal and defiant.

So I decided to ask people to pose in a cheap paper crown, alá Costello. And I kind of like the way that everyone brought their own personal interpretations of how to be King of America.

End of explanation. Results below.

Spoonbills, the Lower Keys and Rona Chang

Over Under 5237 I went on a short road trip up the Keys with Rona Chang a few weeks ago.

Rona is a photographer and was an artist-in-residence at The Studios of Key West in October. I accused her of being a street photographer, but she said no, she is a landscape photographer who wants people in her landscapes. You can see her (very cool) stuff at

This is my favorite of her shots.


It's from her series Moving Forward, Standing Still (Part 1).

She shot a good number of images when she was here, and this is a gallery of her Key West and Lower Keys images.

I think these are two of the highlights.


Anyhow, the first place we stopped was Boca Chica. We walked down to the stone-and-driftwood hut, then down to the salt pond. The salt pond is usually good for birds, but being there with a landscape photographer, I left my 400mm lens in the car and only brought my stubby 50mm and my Holga lenses. I think I muttered something about how this would ensure that I would see a really great bird.

And then at the salt pond, there was a young Roseate Spoonbill standing on a snag above a Great White Heron, a handful of Willets standing like movie extras in the background. And I spent a few minutes cursing that I left the big lens back in the car. I said something out loud about how if I had the big lens I could get right up the nose of that spoonbill. I might have even said it loud enough for Rona to hear.

So I took a few frames with the fifty, just to document the experience for myself, feeling ill-prepared and incompetent, like I'd missed a moment.

But then, back home, processing the images, I came across the one above. Stopped me in my tracks a little bit.

A landscape, peopled with birds.

You'd think hanging around with a photographer who shoots landscapes peopled with people this would have been an obvious thing.

You'd think having spent so much time with Rafael Galvez, who obsesses on painting birds in their natural environment (and who does very great things with that obsession), this would have been an obvious thing.

Lesson for the day: Take lots of shots, stop obsessing on lenses, figure it out later.

We made it all the way up to Marathon, where we unexpectedly crossed paths with the Marathon Homecoming Parade. I wondered what kind of school holds their homecoming parade at two in the afternoon in the hot weeks of October. Rona wondered what exactly a homecoming parade was, as apparently they don't have such things in Manhattan, where she went to high school.

Anyhow, there are a few of my other photos from the trip below. But trust me, go look at Rona's.

"Rona/Rocks" by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (8 of 12)

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-3

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-2

Lower Keys Road Trip (12 of 12)

Lower Keys Road Trip (11 of 12)

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-5

Lower Keys Road Trip (9 of 12)

Lower Keys Road Trip (7 of 12)

Lower Keys Road Trip (6 of 12)


Four! Thousand! Peregrines!


The folks at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park just hit a season count of 4,000 Peregrine Falcons for this season – more than have ever been seen during a single season anywhere else in the world.

Congratulation to Rafael Glavez, who runs the project (and saved it from the ash heap of data collection a few years ago). Also congratulations to Kerry Ross and Rachel Smith, who were the full time counters this year and some very fun folks to hang around with.

I did a piece on the count and the Peregrine Migration for WLRN, the public radio station in Miami, which you can read and/or listen here:

Birdwatchers In The Keys On Alert For Nature's Speed Demon | WLRN.


You can also read more about the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at their blog.

Zombie Bike Ride 2013

Hedden Zombie Ride1426 sm2 I love the fact that the Zombie Bike Ride has become the locals favorite event for (unofficial) Fantasy Fest. The crowds were so big that it took almost a half hour to get across Cow Key Bridge. But then again, who expects zombies to be organized?

Key Westers get very creative given half a chance.

I did a small piece for WLRN, the public radio station in Miami, which you can read and/or listen to here.

A few of my photos made it onto the webpage, but there a lot more in the gallery below.

If you share any of the photos, I would appreciate being credited.

Flasher at the Disco

It's been said by the internet that if you flip a photo of bats upside down, it looks like they are dancing. I call this one "Flasher at the Disco."

The Dry Tortugas Then, Now

Dry Tortugas C 1920. The DeWolfe and Wood Collection.

The Key West Library has a pretty amazing historic photo collection, much of which they have scanned and put on their Flickr page. Some of the best images come from the Scott de Wolfe collection.

Scanning through the photos of old buildings, ships and people wearing way too many layers of clothes for the tropics is one of the great Key West time wasters edifying experiences.

Scott de Wolfe has been kind enough to allow the library to scan many of the photos in his collection.

And now, thanks to the generosity of a donor who wished to remain anonymous, many of those photos are in the physical collection. Including the document that established Key West as an American City. (The document is here. There is a nice write-up about the collection at Littoral, the Key West Literary Seminar blog.)

The photo that stopped me in my tracks today was the one above: Birds at Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas. A cloud of Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, Brown Boobies.

It was taken in 1920.

For a moment I thought the big bird on the right of the roofline was some species lost to science – the Unicorn Booby or the Long-billed Booby. But it's a Brown Booby and the bill is a blur from motion and a long exposure.

There are other cool photos of the Dry Tortugas in the set (see below) and of Key West (see further below).

The cloud-of-birds photo rang a gong, though. Other than the decrepit building on the beach, it feels very much like that now. It was like stepping through a wormhole, time flashing backwards and forwards until now and then are all the same wooly thing.

The first one below is almost as good, and it gives almost the same rush you get when you first make out the fort from the bow of the ferry.

But that cloud of birds photo. Damn.

The approach to the fort.


Dry Tortugas Trip Report

Brown Boobies on a channel marker. A birding trip to the Dry Tortugas during the migration season can be hit or miss. But if it’s a miss, it’s a pretty nice miss – a ride across some of the world’s bluest ocean, a few birds you most likely won’t see anywhere else, a day amidst palm trees and historical semi-ruins. If there aren't any birds you can snorkel in a pristine aquatic wilderness.

The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife festival Dry Tortugas trip was a hit.

The first harbinger of a good birding day was the pair of Sooty Terns in Rebecca Channel. The Yankee Freedom was moving at about 30 knots, so it was a quick view, but most of the folks got decent looks at the birds.

The Masked Booby colony on Hospital Key.

Knowing that there were so many birders on the boat, Captain Rick steered a course as close as possible to Hospital Key, which is the only Masked Booby Colony in North America. The outer islands at the Dry Tortugas are primarily made of sand and periodically grow and shrink according to the whims of the ocean. Hospital Key seems to be in a shrinking phase. There were about 50 Masked Boobies on an island with about the square footage of a tennis court. When you think about it, this is the only bit of land some of these birds have ever been in contact with.

There was one booby floating in the ocean as we approached, and we had the chance to watch it take flight, working to get up out of the water, then slicing out, with the greatest of ease, over the ocean.

A Masked Booby taking flight.

There were also a number of Brown Boobies on the channel markers, and it should be noted that there is nothing that gives a bird guide pause like having to say “I’ve got a pair of immature Brown Boobies” on a boat full of non-birders. (The crew on the Yankee Freedom stylistically refers to them as “booby birds” to avoid this issue, something I intend to remember to do in the future.)

Omnipresent throughout the day were Magnificent Frigatebirds. There were about a hundred in the air at all times.

The group birding at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Dick Fortune &amp; Sara Lopez. See their great bird photography at <a href="">Through The Lens Gallery</a>.

The plan, when we got there, was to head across the drawbridge and into the fort, and to leave our stuff at the water fountain. And to work slowly around the perimeter, searching high and low for any birds we could find.

The plan went awry quickly, and not because the water fountain that’s been at the fort for decades seems to have disappeared.

We dropped our bags near the benches where the fountain used to be. Two hours later we hadn’t moved out of the immediate area of the benches. We just kept seeing new birds in the same trees. A lot of the birds you would expect – Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Palm Warblers – but a lot of the birds you wouldn’t – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler, a Blackburnian Warbler, a small armada of Yellow Warblers. (Oddly we saw no Prairie Warblers.)

A Chestnut-sided Warbler.

A Blackburnian Warbler.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, then an American Kestrel. We saw a Gray-cheeked Thrush, then a slew of Swainson’s Thrushes.

After lunch we did manage a circuit around the parade ground. The oddest bird of the day was a Brown Thrasher – not exactly rare, but definitely not one of the usual suspects at the Tortugas. We also saw a Blue Grosbeak and a White-eyed Vireo that we studied for a time, trying to turn it into something more unusual.

We also made it over to the campground area for a brief time, where we had very good looks at a Swainson’s Warlber flipping over leaves in the shadows, looking for bugs.

A Sandwich Tern flying by the fort.

By the time the Yankee Freedom cast off for the trip home, we’d seen 55 species.

We'd seen a lot of birds during the day, but we knew were we weren’t being thorough. Getting back on the ferry knowing there were so many birds we probably missed was difficult

There was some consolation for the four or five of us spent most of the trip home riding on the bow. About ten miles from the fort the ferry’s path converged with that of a Pomarine Jaeger (light adult, nonbreeding plumage). The jeager flew in front of the boat for about about a hundred yards, then veered south in the general direction of Cuba.


The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival Dry Tortugas Bird List for September 29, 2013

  1. Brown Pelican
  2. Magnificent Frigatebird
  3. Masked Booby
  4. Brown Booby
  5. Double-crested Cormorant
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Great Egret
  8. Cattle Egret
  9. Green Heron
  10. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  11. American Kestrel
  12. Merlin
  13. Peregrine Falcon
  14. Black-bellied Plover
  15. Willet
  16. Ruddy Turnstone
  17. Short-billed Dowitcher
  18. Pomarine Jaeger
  19. Laughing Gull
  20. Royal Tern
  21. Sandwich Tern
  22. Sooty Tern
  23. Eurasian Collared-dive
  24. Morning Dove
  25. Rock Dove
  26. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  27. Eastern Kingbird
  28. Red-eyed Vireo
  29. White-eyed Vireo
  30. Barn Swallow
  31. Cliff Swallow
  32. Swainson’s Thrush
  33. Gray-cheeked Thrush
  34. Brown Thrasher
  35. Tennessee Warbler
  36. Orange-crowned Warbler
  37. Northern Parula
  38. Yellow Warbler
  39. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  40. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  41. Blackburnian Warbler
  42. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  43. Palm Warbler
  44. Yellow-throated Warbler
  45. Black-and-white Warbler
  46. American Redstart
  47. Northern Waterthrush
  48. Ovenbird
  49. Swainson’s Warbler
  50. Magnolia Warbler
  51. Hooded Warbler
  52. Summer Tanager
  53. Blue Grosbeak
  54. Orchard Oriole
  55. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  56. Empidonax Flycatcher (sp)

Start With The Chuck

Chuck-will's-widow The first post on a blog is supposed to be an act of throat clearing — statement of purpose, who you are, etc. But, feh, boring. It's best not to write what you don't want to read.

My name is Mark. I like birds.

The photo above is of a Chuck-will's-widow. It is a member of the goatsucker family. (Non birders: commence tittering. Birders: commence acting like the name isn't funny.)

Goatsuckers are night workers. They got the name because it was believed they stole milk from the udders of unsuspecting goats. Which they do not. What they do do is fly around in the dark with their mouths open, catching bugs.

Like many night workers, they sleep all day. To avoid getting noticed or eaten they have what is called cryptic plumage, meaning they use sleight-of-feather to trick people and other critters into not seeing them. It is camouflage beyond camouflage. (It is the shallow depth of field that makes the bird in the above photo obvious. The wide-view photo of the yard below makes it a little harder.)

Usually you don't see Chuck-will's-widows until you almost step on them and they sort of huff in resignation, leap into the air like a feathered, benign Bouncing Betty, and fly off.

I was talking with someone last year, trying to answer the question of what I like about birding, and I decided that the things that make me happiest are the surprises. I like it when something I hadn't quite grasped before, or expected, suddenly makes itself apparent or known. It could be an aspect of a bird I hadn't noticed before — say the baffle in the middle of a Peregrine Falcon's nostril, or the gator-like scaliness of a Great Egret's foot. Or it could be a bird I hadn't seen before — like the possible (possible possible) Caribbean Martin Carl Goodrich found at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West spring.

Chuck-will's-widows are almost always surprises. You never see them until they are leaving. Sometimes you can re-find them, but more often, you just lose track of them in the shadows.

This was one of the few Chuck's that didn't surprise me. Because it was found by my friend Kimberly. She sent me an email after she saw it in her backyard, thought it might be an owl, and thought it might be injured – which is a pretty normal response to seeing your first Chuck.

Chuck-will's-widow are so convinced you can't see them that their flight response can seem nonexistent. And it's a strategy that has worked well for them for thousands and thousands of years. But it often perplexes humans, who are used to birds being much more skittish, and therefore think something must be wrong.

Find the Chuck-will's-widow.

When I stopped by Kimberly's with my camera, the bird hadn't moved all morning.

I sat down on the ground in the backyard and the bird did not care. I belly-crawled to within five yards of the thing, and the bird still did not care.

It is tempting to say that the bird did not even bother to open its eyes, but if you look at the photo, its eye is actually open. Chucks have huge eyes, the better to see at night. They are not inclined to open them fully during the excessive light of day, and as a result they tend to view things with a slitted reserve.

I took about as many photos as I could need, then just watched for a while. The wind gusted slightly. A Turkey Vulture flew overhead. The Chuck did nothing.

I thought for a while — tried to take in — the way it's bill was so high and came off the forehead like the prow on a ship. The way the bill was proportionally tiny but was really like the tip of an iceberg, hiding a mouth five times bigger, hiding a mouth with a gape wide enough to swallow a small bird or bat whole.

And there is was — the buzz, the heady frisson of seeing something new in something you've seen dozens of times before.