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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Dry Tortugas

February 16th, 2011 · No Comments

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Visiting Dry Tortugas National Park has been the high point of my trip to Florida so far. It may also be the furthest south — about 24°37′N latitude — although Key West, where I am staying, is at almost the same latitude.

Dry Tortugas is 70 miles west of Key West — so far west in fact that it is in the Central Time Zone. It is literally the end of Florida and is the most isolated American national park.

While I was able to drive from key to key over many bridges en route from Miami, the road, U.S. 1, stops a few feet from my lodging. To proceed the rest of the way to Dry Tortugas I had the choice of a ship or an airplane. I chose to fly on a 10-seater DHC-31 DeHavilland Turbine Otter that in 35 minutes took me from Key West International Airport to the water at the edge of Garden Key.

Arriving at Dry Tortugas

Arriving at Dry Tortugas

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Fort Jefferson occupies 11 of Garden Key’s 16 acres, which together with Bush Key is better known as Dry Tortugas.

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key with Bush Key in the Foreground and the Lighthouse in the Background

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key with Bush Key in the Foreground and the Lighthouse in the Background

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When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered these keys in 1513, he named them Las Tortugas, because of all the turtles he found there. Later mariners renamed them the Dry Tortugas, because of the lack of fresh water there.

The American government started building Fort Jefferson there in 1846 to control navigation to the Gulf of Mexico. While construction continued for more than 30 years, the fort was never finished. It is nevertheless the largest brick building in the Western Hemisphere.

But I didn’t go there to see the fort. I went to see the birds. And found so many that I took more than 300 photographs in the 2 and 1/2 hours I visited.

As I wandered around inside the fort I saw a woman carrying a spotting scope. She had landed on the ship that arrived just when my plane did and was a volunteer leading a couple of people who, like me, were looking for birds. We found several, including this one:

A Palm Warbler

A Palm Warbler

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She also told me about another bird and where to find it:

A Ruddy Turnstone

A Ruddy Turnstone

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On my own later I walked along some old pilings that many birds appreciated:

A Double-Crested Cormorant

A Double-Crested Cormorant

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The birds below are members of the only species in the United States that has a larger lower mandible than upper mandible:

A Conspiracy of Black Skimmers

A Conspiracy of Black Skimmers

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At the suggestion of the pilot, I went to the top of the fort looking for the birds soaring overhead. This next one was actually soaring below where I stood. While yesterday I sent four shots of the birds of this species, this close-up with the beautiful water background may be even better:

A Brown Pelican Flies By

A Brown Pelican Flies By

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But the bird that I most wanted to see was the Magnificent Frigatebird, which we knew earlier as the Man O’War because of its speed and aerial piracy from other birds. Frigatebirds are the only seabirds where the male and female look strikingly different. They spend most of their lives flying over the ocean, but rarely or ever land on water. Only one other bird species spends days and nights on the wing. And Magnificent Frigatebirds have a 7-foot wingspan:

A Male Magnificent Frigatebird

A Male Magnificent Frigatebird

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A Female Magnificent Frigatebird

A Female Magnificent Frigatebird

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A Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird

A Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird

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Headed back to Key West we flew over two scenes that could not be more dissimilar. The first is one of the boats abandoned recently by a group of refugees from Cuba when they landed on an uninhabited American key:

Cuban Refuge Boat

Cuban Refuge Boat

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The second is the only privately owned land within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This is Ballast Key, which a Key West developer named David W. Wolkowsky now owns:

Ballast Key: The Only Private Home in the Sanctuary

Ballast Key: The Only Private Home in the Sanctuary

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Envious? Actually, you can buy all 26 acres of Ballast Key and the four bedroom main house plus a three bedroom guesthouse overlooking a palm tree-lined sand beach. It’s on the market for just $13.8 million. Of course, anyone can enjoy the Dry Tortugas.

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Posted in: Florida, Photography

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