This was my second day ever to set foot in Florida. As a person who had never been south of the Smokies in Tennessee I spent hours this afternoon in the Key West Botanical Garden, stepping slower and slower, stopping, quiet, another exotic against the background full of fighter planes, sirens and faint cries of Floridian birds I've been just getting to know. South Florida, maybe all of Florida since I've landed in it all the way at the tip which is the Miami area, is like another country to a person raised in the middle of our continent. In today's haven were shrubs labeled as natives of Cuba or Barbados or the West Indies, which are closer land masses by far than anywhere I ever hailed from. According to habit and a kind of compulsion I've begun, barely, learning the names of a few trees, shrubs and herbs that appear to grow wild.
Walking in Florida, listening to signs of whomever shares the woods, a person soon recognizes lizards, a wildlife form that we lack in the Upper Midwestern states or north, in Canada--as yet, or for the most part, at least. Lizards of a wide, unfamiliar variety rustle and plop onto dry leaves or into living vegetation. As I'd train my listening to tell bird stirrings apart from other movement, like the scuffings of lizards in sizes up to (maybe) the length of my arm in one instance, and I feel the sweat on my upper lip and the bath of summer-like day-glare all around me I'm pulled into an awareness that my perpetual quarry, the birds, are evolutionary descendants of the lizards, and this is a place where a natural historian can feel immersed in that old connection, feeling it the way we feel and smell the chemistry of the sea when we arrive at a seashore.
Freshwater Pond at Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden
A likely question as I stroll and peer, stop and listen, jerk short in response, at first, to the wheeling forms of magnificent frigate birds, bat-like but huge and wickedly avian with their long pointed black wings, tails like a pair of prongs that divide or come together, beaks like a spike with hooked tip--is: could I ever like living here if I had to come and stay? It is nice, in my transport of fascination and recognition from things I've read somewhere or seen pictured, to suspend thought on this question (so many aging northerners, after all, have chosen to move to this climate) to say that I don't know and won't bother to consider it. I'm swept away by all that's utterly new or else new in real-life form. I missed the ferry to the Dry Tortugas this morning so I get to walk this piece of land instead, and see what I'd either glimpsed from the moving car or city sidewalk or not ever seen before: Muscovy duck:
white-crowned pigeon--erect where it hurled itself on a dead treetop--and black-whiskered vireo, which is Florida's edition of the red-eyed vireo typical of my home forests in summertime.
Magnificent Frigate Bird - seen swirling in squadrons above the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas
When I'm not poised to identify a moving creature, I can think on the lifetime task I believe it would be to familiarize oneself with every leafy thing that grows here; Florida, with so far over 2,800 species of native plants described, and numerous introduced species, has the most kinds of wild plants of any state in the U.S. Since the botanical garden has, fortunately, labels on little signposts for some of their shrubs and trees, I was able to view and photograph these two:
Wild Coffee (above) and the flammable Blacktorch, cut when dry, then split lengthwise to make hunting torches by Caribbean native people
Next day at predawn, starting from downtown Key West's streets dense with houses, tight backyards all crowing with roosters from one yard to the next within blocks of the ferry launch, I'm able to make it aboard the Yankee Freedom III which heads out daily to the Dry Tortugas. This is a fabulous archipelago of shipwrecks, coral sea bottom, and lonely, ill-documented human toil followed by malingering deaths. Around the time of his arrival in 1513 the islands were named by Ponce de Leon of Spain after the sea turtles that frequent those shallows and shores, laying eggs on the brilliant white beaches. These are hot desert islets, seven in all, composing a U.S. national park totaling about 100 square miles, most of that area the pale blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Fort Jefferson was built on the islet known as Garden Key, starting in the 1840s, as a defense against naval raids from the south seas but was never completed, and served most famously as a Union Army prison for Confederates captured during the Civil War. Drinking water had to be collected out of cisterns on top of the fort, and was scarce or absent enough of the time to impose deadly dehydration or related anguish among untold numbers of men. The architecture features enough ornamentation, including a spectacular six-sided symmetry, to hint of the starkly mixed purposes held all in all by designers, brick masons and occupants of that lonely place surrounded in the rookeries of terns, boobies, shearwaters and other sea birds.
Fort Jefferson from within, the long-ago parade grounds
Receding out from the fort, in its vast reach-around of arches and angles the epitome of all the superseded projects whose hulks endure over a century through hurricanes and disregard, a shrine in staunch brickwork, an arm of scrubby beach served as breeding grounds for a swirl of terns almost entirely of two species. Their cries scratched at the ears concurrently with vocalizations from the frigate birds circling perpetually overhead, a few of the males exhibiting a hanging throat-sac of bright orange, crying out a pin-sharp note that purely complements the over-all jagged profile of this hunter species. They also have their nesting grounds on other of the islets, called keys, among the Tortugas.
I was luckily able to borrow a spotting scope from the park management and then stand not far from a young man, Christian Hagenlocher, who was here in the course of a Big Year. He describes himself as an ambassador for birding within the public, seeking to better his own skills in knowing birds and to meet other birders, recording their stories and insights, including the question of how technology has enriched any aspect of birding as they experience it. His developing website for sharing his mission and discoveries includes a map of his route so far, various intimate shots of splendid wild birds like the Lapland longspur, pictures of habitat, and the hands of sundry interviewees holding their binoculars. Heat-shimmer and some myopia added to my difficulties zooming in on the sooty terns, common enough in the boil of airborne terns but all distant, outnumbered by the brown noddies, so Christian helped me distinguish between the field marks of sooty and bridled terns, a species not present in the nesting colony to our knowledge so far. Later, broiling in hot-weather fabrics, sore in the hips from hours of standing but not to be daunted in the ultra-specialness of this place, I circled the fort on the cement-and-brick walkway that bounds the moat encircling the whole fort. Families of folks visiting from up or down the rest of the world snorkeled in sea shallows underlain by white sand and corals, hovered over by the odd angelfish, as I plodded, carrying the lightweight scope and glancing up for seabirds and enjoying all the enjoyment around me.
Moat surrounding Fort Jefferson, built into one side of Garden Key
Desert vegetation along part of Garden Key
Coral nodules, bird nesting debris, coconut etc. along a beach of mixed sand and ground-up shell
Inside on the one-time parade grounds were copses of trees surrounded in grass, where cattle egrets foraged and, in the trees, warblers en route to breeding grounds in the North American heartland leapt, gleaned food and sang their diminutive songs of spring and northern nesting places. We are back and forth, traversing seas that feel for lengths of time, according to our pace, boundless yet that we know have shores and limits. We consider the same distant interior places our ultimate destinations. And I know that in minutes it will be time to turn back on my own next several stops to the mainland on the north.
Inner grounds of the fort are a refuge to migratory warblers and other passerine birds.
To visit the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson follow link to the National Park Service site.
A hemisphere: heartland, sea and black tern in watercolor/gouache -- unframed original art piece shown near bottom, painted on 300 lb. cold-press paper, 22x30" - $495 + tax and shipping