For the Birds

Put down the field glasses and close up the guidebooks. When Florida's top avian enthusiasts do battle, the feathers fly.

One of the first visitors to note the abundance of avifauna on the islands was Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Le centsn, who stopped by in 1513 and named the cluster of seven coral reefs Las Tortugas (the Turtles) because of the many shelled reptiles he found there. One of the first to begin listing the abundance of species here was John James Audubon, who sailed over to what he called "these inhospitable isles" from Key West in May 1832.

Through the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth centuries, the Tortugas were a shipwreck destination in waiting. And many occurred there, as British and Spanish vessels sailed through an area made treacherous by both pirates and reefs. In 1825, three years after Florida became a U.S. territory, a lighthouse was built on Garden Key, and soon after that the U.S. War Department recognized the strategic importance of controlling the Tortugas to protect the growing sea trade between the Mississippi Valley and the Atlantic.

Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846, with slave labor. Its eight-foot-thick walls stand fifty feet high and include three tiers designed to hold 450 guns and a garrison of 1500 men. But although work continued for 30 years, what was once called "the Gibraltar of the Gulf," planned as the largest in a series of coastal fortifications envisioned in the early 1800s, was never completed. Federal troops occupied the fort during the Civil War, but did little except begin building quarters for themselves and their officers. After the Civil War ended and the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, some work on the fort was taken up by imprisoned Union deserters. But by then the sands beneath the fort had begun to shift and the walls had started to crack, and the Army finally abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874 after a punishing hurricane and an outbreak of yellow fever.

The red-brick fort's most famous resident was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the Maryland physician who set the broken leg of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. After being convicted of complicity in the president's murder, Mudd was sentenced to life in prison. For four years Mudd was held in a dank corner cell until he was pardoned in 1869 for his work in fighting a yellow fever epidemic.

The fort was also the embarkation point in 1898 of the battleship Maine, which in February sailed into Havana Harbor, was mysteriously blown up, and ultimately provided a pretext for the U.S. to declare war on Spain and help win Cuban independence later that year.

Today the Dry Tortugas, a wildlife refuge since 1908 and a national park since 1992, is among the most remote of all federal lands, a sunbaked paradise for snorkeling, diving on many nearby shipwrecks, and fishing. Fewer than a half-dozen park employees and their families live permanently at the fort, but there are no accommodations for visitors. Outside the fort is a small primitive campground for those willing to bring along all their own provisions. There is no fresh water -- hence the designation "dry" A and no food for sale. There is one toilet, on the dock.

For birders building a life list, the Dry Tortugas are a must. These tiny beadlike islands serve as the only North American nesting grounds of the masked booby, the sooty tern, the brown noddy, and the magnificent frigate bird, as well as a crucial stopover for hundreds of migrants, including warblers, flycatchers, tanagers, finches, hawks, and shore birds.

Among rare but possible species are the red-footed booby, the white-tailed tropic bird, the yellow-faced grassquit, and the antillean nighthawk. And it is these rarities that can at times provoke controversy. Last spring during the first Tortuga-thon, Biggs claimed to have seen a loggerhead kingbird, a West Indian native and rare visitor to Florida that is distinguished from the common gray kingbird by its lack of a blackish mask. Although Biggs insisted he clearly spotted the uniformly dark head of the loggerhead kingbird, others, including Langridge, felt that the sunlight could have caused Biggs to make an error. And so that night, as the serious birders gathered to make the day's list -- a daily record, turned over to the National Park Service, of all the species (and how many of each) that were spotted -- the loggerhead kingbird was finally recorded without capital letters, indicating a lack of certainty.

But on Biggs's personal list the loggerhead kingbird went down as a life bird, and this year is featured in Biggs's birding magazine advertisements for Florida Nature Tours, in which he calls himself "Florida's best-known bird man."

There is no equivalent controversy this year. But late one night, after a dazzling evening walk around the fort's moat under a sky splattered by stars and the comet Hyakutake, Biggs, Langridge, and five other record-crazed birders -- all men -- gather in the Yankee Freedom's salon to draw up the day's list. The 90-minute review of every bird seen since dawn that day is excruciatingly detailed as Biggs leads the group through the 291-species checklist, from shearwaters to finches.

"Okay, little blue heron," says Biggs. "I had a couple over by the coaling docks."

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