Fort Pickens - Gulf Islands National Seashore
One of the great places on the Florida Great Birding & Wildlife Trail is Fort Pickens, one of Florida’s historic treasures. Sitting at the mouth of Pensacola Bay, the fort was designed to provide, along with Forts McRee and Barrancas, protection for naval ships anchored within the harbor near Pensacola. Construction on the fort began in 1829 and the fort was completed five years later. The fort first saw military action when confederates demanded its surrender in early 1861. The commander refused, and when the fort was reinforced the day after Ft. Sumter surrendered in South Carolina, Federal control throughout the war was all but guaranteed. If the Confederates had attacked right away, the Civil War would have started in Florida rather than South Carolina! Confederate troops under General Braxton Bragg made one serious but futile attempt to capture the fort at the Battle of Santa Rosa Island in November, 1861. One last bombardment of Fort Pickens took place in January of 1862, again with very little damage. Soon after, the Confederates abandoned any attempts to control Pensacola Bay, and Fort Pickens was used as a prison by the Union for the remainder of the war years.
After the war, Fort Pickens was largely forgotten until 1886 when fifteen Apache warriors were imprisoned there along with their families. One was the famous warrior Geronimo who quickly became a major tourist attraction. When the indians were moved to Alabama in 1888, the sensationalism quickly died down.
The Spanish-American War in 1898 brought the military back to Fort Pickens with the construction of Battery Pensacola on the parade ground and Battery Worth just east of the old fort. Other guns were mounted nearby and a system of mines and floating booms were installed to protect the mouth of the bay. On June 20, 1899, a fire broke out in the old fort which eventually set off 8,000 pounds of powder stored in the northwest bastion. The explosion destroyed the bastion and damaged much of the surrounding fort. The army simply used the “new” entrance to easily access Battery Pensacola.
During World War I, Battery Langdon and several other defenses were built to improve the harbor defenses. During World War II, Fort Pickens was still used for storage, but her weapons were mostly obsolete. By 1947, many of the old guns had been removed and the property declared surplus. In 1949, Fort Pickens was placed under the control of the Florida State Park System, and in 1971 was incorporated into the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Thanks to the National Park Service, Fort Pickens is open today as a historical landmark tracing our nation’s history for almost two centuries. It is also great that the natural areas surrounding the old walls and gun batteries have become a hotbed of birding rarities and a great place for birds to “reload” (pun intended!) during migration.
Several times Fort Pickens has been the site for one of Florida’s real rarities - Sage Thrasher. In 1976 one remained for about six weeks and a second record occurred in January of 1981. In 2011, another showed up at the fort as well, making Fort Pickens a “hot spot” in Florida for this species. Another very rare bird in Florida, a Green-tailed Towhee, made an appearance at the fort in 2011.Groove-billed Anis show up frequently with a high of eight reported in 1992. Large numbers of migrants are frequently reported during “fall-outs” along the coast, both spring and fall. These events are weather related, but occur almost every year. Even without a fallout, the birding during migration can be spectacular!
|Rarities such as this Green-tailed Towhee have been recorded at the fort in recent years|
Fort Pickens is a great spot to combine a love of birds with a love for the story of our country. All you have to do is “Get out there”!