In this months Blast from the Past, Dave Goodwin writes about Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortguas National Park, a place he has been visiting for many years.
One of the premier birding locations in the United States and on the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail, the Dry Tortugas are seven small coral sand islands located in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 70 miles west of Key West. First discovered in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon, the islands, which he named “Las Islas de Tortugas”, have the lengthiest known natural history and one of the most unusual military histories in the entire United States. Ponce de Leon and his men first noted the large bird colony in the islands and marine turtles found in the shallow waters - the first “discovered” rookeries and turtle nesting sites in what today is the United States. The islands were first given protection as a bird sanctuary in 1908 thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1935, his cousin Franklin made the islands part of the National Park Service as Fort Jefferson National Monument. In 1992, the United States Congress authorized the change in status to the Dry Tortugas National Park with the idea of increased protection for the marine animals and birdlife of the islands and the surrounding reefs.
|Fort Jefferson by Robert Gould|
The human occupation of the islands began with construction of the original lighthouse on Garden Key in 1825. A second taller light was built on Loggerhead Key in 1856 in order to improve navigation around the island’s treacherous reefs, home to many shipwrecks, some dating back to the Spanish era in Florida. This light, repaired after numerous hurricanes, is still in operation today. The original light on Garden key was destroyed in the 1870’s and was replaced by an iron harbor light that sits on the top of the southeast bastion of Fort Jefferson.
|Sunrise over Fort Jefferson by Dave Goodwin|
The United States military saw the islands as a base from which to control the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. A fort located on Garden Key would protect the natural anchorage from which ships could blockade the waters between Florida and Yucatan. Construction began on Fort Jefferson in 1846 and continued off and on for thirty years. The fort would have mounted 450 cannons, the most guns ever planned for a United States military installation; however, the most ever mounted were 141. The Civil War in 1860 proved that brick forts were obsolete, but the Union army continued to man the fort and use it mostly as a prison. After the war ended, the fort became famous as the prison to which four of the Lincoln assassination conspirators were sent. The most famous Dr. Samuel Mudd played a role in treating sick soldiers during an epidemic of yellow fever and was later released. Due to frequent damaging hurricanes and fever outbreaks, the army finally halted construction on the nearly completed fort and abandoned it in 1884. Later, the installation was used as a quarantine station and a coaling station until additional hurricanes drove them out as well. The battleship USS Maine sailed from the Dry Tortugas to Havana Cuba, where its destruction led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. A coal bunker fire with coal from Fort Jefferson may have been the cause of the explosion.
|Bush Key by Dave Goodwin|
The first naturalist of note to write about the Dry Tortugas was John James Audubon who visited the islands in 1832 to see the tern colony on Bird Key. This island disappeared in the 1930’s and the birds moved to nearby Bush Key. Today, Bush Key serves as the home of the largest nesting colony of Sooty and Brown Noddy Terns in the United States. Masked Boobies nest on tiny Hospital Key, the only nesting location for this species in the country. Long Key has been the site of a large colony of nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds for several decades.
|Sooty & Brown Noddy Terns by Dave Goodwin|
Louis Agassiz and his son Alexander visited the islands in the 1850’s and 1880’s to study the marine resources of the area. In 1902, the Carnegie Institute under the direction of Dr. Alfred G. Mayor established a marine laboratory on Loggerhead Key to study the organisms that lived in this tropical region of the United States. The laboratory remained in operation into the late 1930‘s, producing many historic journal publications on the animal life of these tropical islands and reefs. There is a memorial to Dr. Mayor located on Loggerhead Key where he drowned in 1922.
|birders in the parade ground by Dave Goodwin|
For birders, the chief draw is the breeding colonies of birds mentioned above that are difficult to find elsewhere in US waters. Also found here, but not breeding are numerous Brown Boobies, occasional Black Noddy Terns, and the graceful White-tailed Tropicbirds. Trips along the edge of the reef out to the islands frequently see Bridled Terns and Audubon’s Shearwaters. Vagrants from the Caribbean are also found on the islands, mostly during April and May when numerous birding tours visit the islands. Bahama Mockingbird, Yellow-faced Grassquit, and White-tipped Dove have been found here.
|Bahama Mockingbird by Laura Gooch|
Another draw for birders are the Neotropical migrants that use the islands as a stopping point on their migrations to and from the tropics. Large “fallouts” can drop thousands of birds on the islands, most of which are too busy feeding to worry about humans and allow very close observation. Frequent counts of 20+ warbler species can be had in late April and early May. The bird checklist contains approximately 300 species which have been recorded over the years in the park.
|Blackburnian Warbler by William H. Majoros|
Access to the Dry Tortugas is limited to boat or aircraft. Day trips by boat or seaplane can be taken year around from Key West to Garden Key. Many bird tour operators run multi-day trips to the park beginning in April. The park is also accessible by private boats which can anchor in the natural harbor near Garden Key. Camping is available on Garden Key, but other than restrooms located on the dock, there are no facilities or fresh water in the park. Visit the NPS website at http://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm for more information.
|Loggerhead Key Lighthouse by US Coast Guard|