Birds, Photography, Key West, Whatnot

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.

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.