Blasts from the Past

Los Angeles Times

June 1996

 

Awash in warblers, noddies on the Dry Tortugas : It's birder nirvana when more than 290 migrating species briefly alight at this national park

 

MIKE CLARY

 

DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK, Fla. -As the red-brick walls of Ft. Jefferson take shape through the misty dawn, those passengers able to shake  off seasickness grope their  way to the yacht's deck and note that  the day promises to be bird-watching perfect: rain in squalls, gusty winds, unrelieved gloom.

Then, binoculars raised, the birders begin to call roll. "Magnificent frigate bird!"

"Sooty tern!"

"Double-crested cormorant!"

During most of the year, the seven sand-spit islands of the Dry Tortugas are easily one of the most peaceful, least-visited national parks in the United States. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico almost 70 miles from Key West, Fla., these tiny, barren isles are not easy for visitors to get to--and offer no amenities when they get there.

In 1995, according to the National Park Service, the Dry Tortugas attracted fewer than  33,000 visitors--about what Yosemite or

Yellowstone draw on an average summer weekend.

But there is a two-month busy season in the Dry Tortugas, when tens of thousands of birds show up and hundreds of avid bird watchers show up to see them. Some birders fly in for the day on small pontoon planes. Others arrive on charter boats. "On any given day in April or May, this can be the best place in the U.S. for seeing migrating birds,"  said Wes Biggs, a first-class birder and tour guide who often has counted more than 100 species of birds in a day on the Dry Tortugas.

Indeed, on a routine, sunny  day in spring, the parade  grounds  oflong-abandoned Ft. Jefferson on Garden  Key, as well as the woodsy wilds of nearby  Loggerhead  Key, are alive in an avian kaleidoscope of color as migrants forage for insects and seeds that  will fuel their flight north. Warblers, flycatchers, swallows, vireos, tanagers and sparrows are everywhere on the ground and in the trees, while Ioo,ooo sooty terns and 2,500  brown noddies keep up a whirling commotion over their  rookery  on Bush Key.

For hard-core birders building a life list--a personal record of each species of bird sighted--the Dry Tortugas are a mecca. These islands are the only North American breeding ground of the masked booby, sooty tern, the brown  noddy and the magnificent frigate bird.

And for migrating birds maklng the annual journey from Central America and South America to the United States and Canada, the Dry Tortugas are a last-chance oasis, a flyway rest stop too inviting to pass up. When bad weather causes what are known as "major fallouts" of feathered transients, the birding is even better. The checklist of birds seen in the Dry Tortugas exceeds 290 species.

One of the first to notice the abundant bird life here was Juan  Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer  who in 1513 named the islands Las

Tortugas after  the many turtles he saw. The reefs were later  called "dry" on mariners' charts to indicate there was no fresh water.

The first serious birder  to call was John James Audubon, who visited what he called "these inhospitable isles" in 1832. About the same time, the U.S. government decided to fortify the islands as a way of protecting ships traveling from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic.

Construction  of Ft. Jefferson began in 1846, and continued for 30 years  but was never  completed. During the Civil War, the three-decked fort served as a Union military prison for deserters and was used to hold four men charged of complicity in the murder of President Lincoln. Among the four was Dr.Samuel A. Mudd, who set the broken leg of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

The Army abandoned Ft. Jefferson  in 1874, and in 1908 the area was made a federal wildlife refuge to protect  the sooty tern rookery from egg collectors. The fort was named a national monument in 1935.

Since being designated a national park in 1992, the number of visitors to the Dry Tortugas has increased steadily, says park manager Wayne Landrum, one of 1o federal employees who lives here full time. Still, the park remains relatively inaccessible. The only way to get to the islands is by boat or seaplane from Key West. But even that  access is down, at least temporarily, after  two recent  plane crashes grounded one charter company.

Nor are there any overnight  accommodations, food or much drinking water. There is a primitive campground on Garden Key outside the fort, and one toilet on the dock.