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A Guide to John Audubon's visit to the Florida Keys 

 

 

 

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AUDUBON IN THE FLORIDA KEYS


 

 

INDEX

  
AUDUBON


INDIAN KEY
1832


CORMORANT


ROSEATE
TERN


GRAY
KINGBIRD


REDDISH
EGRET


LOUISIANA
HERON


SANDY KEY


WHITE IBIS


WILLET

 
ZENAIDA
DOVE


WHITE
CROWNED
PIGEON


THE AUDUBON HOUSE IN
KEY WEST


AUDUBON'S
KEY WEST


KEY WEST AFTER
AUDUBON


ROSEATE
SPOONBILL


GREAT
WHITE
HERON


GREAT
BLUE
HERON


KEY WEST
DOVE


FLAMINGOS


BLUE-
HEADED
QUAIL DOVE


FRIGATE BIRD


BROWN
PELICAN


MANGROVE
CUCKOO


TORTUGAS


SOOTY
TERN


BLACK
HEADED GULL


BROWN
NODDY


CAYENNE
TERN


BROWN
BOOBY


SANDWICH
TERN


NIGHT
HERON


GREENSHANK


GREAT
MARBLED
GODWIT


MANGO
HUMMING-
BIRD


TROPIC
BIRD




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The Tortugas during Audubon's time and after

map of Florida Keys and Key West


 Tortugas Fort Jefferson
Pictured above are a group of visitors on a high point of Fort Jefferson looking out from Garden Key toward Long Key and Bush Key which serve as nesting grounds for the sooty tern and frigratebird.

Pictured above is an 1854 map of the Tortugas.The configuration of these islands has changed since the time of Audubon's visit. Long Key and Bush Key are now joined together and accessible by a sandy causeway from Garden Key. Bird Key which Audubon also visited no longer exists. Fort Jefferson was not built until well after Audubon's visit. Garden Key was selected for the site of Fort Jefferson , because of the depth of the waters nearby making it a good harbor for naval vessels.

 

Tortugas in Audubon's Time

Named Las Tortugas by Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon in 1513 because of the turtles he found there , the Tortugas became a part of the United States when Florida was sold to the United States in 1821.

Sea turtles still use the beaches of Garden Key each summer to bury their eggs.

Audubon writes about the of birds he sees in the Tortugas in his Ornithological Biography. He spends a week in the Tortugas and returns to Key West on May 16, 1832. Among the birds he draws in the Tortugas are the Sooty Tern, the Noody Tern, the Brown Booby and the Cayenne Tern.

Audubon includes within his bird Biography sections or "Episodes" on the life of Wreckers, and Turtlers. In an Episode entitled "The Wreckers of the Florida Keys" he writes how he is helped by wreckers who aid in the collecting of bird specimens. They also provide Audubon with a wealth of information about the islands' wildlife. He writes,

" . . . In a short time we were extremely social and merry. They thought my visit to the Tortugas, in quest of birds, was rather a "curious fancy;" but, notwithstanding, they expressed their pleasure while looking at some of my drawings, and offered their services in procuring specimens. Expeditions far and near were proposed, and on settling that one of them was to take place on the morrow, we parted friends.

Early next morning, several of these kind men accompanied me to a small key called Booby Island, about ten miles distant from the lighthouse. Their boats were well manned, and rowed with long and steady strokes, such as whalers and men-of-war's men are wont to draw. The captain sang, and at times, by way of frolic, ran a race with our own beautiful bark. The Booby Isle was soon reached, and our sport there was equal to any we had elsewhere. They were capital shots, had excellent guns, and knew more about boobies and noddies than nine-tenths of the best naturalists in the world. But what will you say when I tell you the Florida Wreckers are excellent at a deer hunt, and that at certain seasons, "when business is slack," they are wont to land on some extensive key, and in a few hours procure a supply of delicious venison.

Some days afterwards, the same party took me on an expedition in quest of sea-shells. There we were all in water at times to the waist, and now and then much deeper. Now they would dip, like ducks, and on emerging would hold up a beautiful shell. This occupation they seemed to enjoy above all others.

The duties of the Marion having been performed, intimation of our intended departure reached the Wreckers. An invitation was sent to me to go and see them on board their vessels, which I accepted. Their object on this occasion was to present me with some superb "   corals, shells, live turtles of the Hawk-billed species, and a great quantity of eggs. Not a "pecayon" would they receive in return, but putting some letters in my hands, requested me to "be so good as to put them in the mail at Charleston," adding that they were for their wives "down east."

Audubon also writes about the Tortugas in an Episode's section called "Turtlers". Below is a portion of his Ornithological Biography, Volume II, pages 370-371.

THE TURTLERS

The Tortugas are a group of islands lying about eighty miles from Key West, and the last of those that seem to defend the peninsula of the Floridas. They consist of five or six extremely low uninhabitable banks formed of shelly sand, and are resorted to principally by that class of men called Wreckers and Turtlers. Between these islands are deep channels, which, although extremely intricate, are well known to those adventurers, as well as to the commanders of the revenue cutters, whose duties call them to that dangerous coast. The great coral reef or wall lies about eight miles from these inhospitable isles, in the direction of the Gulf, and on it many an ignorant or careless navigator has suffered shipwreck. The whole ground around them is densely covered with corals, sea-fans, and other productions of the deep, amid which crawl innumerable testaceous animals, while shoals of curious and beautiful fishes fill the limpid waters above them. Turtles of different species resort to these banks, to deposit their eggs in the burning sand, and clouds of sea-fowl arrive every spring for the same purpose. These are followed by persons called "Eggers," who, when their cargoes are completed, sail to distant markets, to exchange their ill-gotten ware for a portion of that gold, on the acquisition of which all men seem bent.

The "Marion" having occasion to visit the Tortugas, I gladly embraced the opportunity of seeing those celebrated islets. A few hours before sunset the joyful cry of "land" announced our approach to them, but as the breeze was fresh, and the pilot was well acquainted with all the windings of the channels, we held on, and dropped anchor before twilight. If you have never seen the sun setting in those latitudes, I would recommend to you to make a voyage for the purpose, for I much doubt if, in any other portion of the world, the departure of the orb of day is accompanied with such gorgeous appearances. Look at the great red disk, increased to triple its ordinary dimensions! Now it has partially sunk beneath the distant line of waters, and with its still remaining half irradiates the whole heavens with a flood of golden light, purpling the far off clouds that hover over the western horizon. A blaze of refulgent glory streams through the portals of the west, and the masses of vapour assume the semblance of mountains of molten gold. But the sun has now disappeared, and from the east slowly advances the grey curtain which night draws over the world.

The Night-hawk is flapping its noiseless wings in the gentle sea-breeze; the Terns, safely landed, have settled on their nests; the Frigate Pelicans are seen wending their way to distant mangroves; and the Brown Gannet, in search of a resting-place, has perched on the yard of the vessel. Slowly advancing landward, their heads alone above the water, are observed the heavily laden Turtles, anxious to deposit their eggs in the well-known sands. On the surface of the gently rippling stream, I dimly see their broad forms, as they toil along, while at intervals may be heard their hurried breathings, indicative of suspicion and fear. The moon with her silvery light now illumines the scene, and the Turtle having landed, slowly and laboriously drags her heavy body over the sand, her "flappers" being better adapted for motion in the water than on shore. Up the slope, however, she works her way, and see how industriously she removes the sand beneath her, casting it out on either side. Layer after layer she deposits her eggs, arranging them in the most careful manner, and, with her hind-paddles, brings the sand over them. The business is accomplished, the spot is covered over, and with a joyful heart, the Turtle swiftly retires towards the shore, and launches into the deep.  

But the Tortugas are not the only breeding places of the Turtles; these animals, on the contrary, frequent many other keys, as well as various parts of the coast of the mainland. There are four different species, which are known by the names of the Green Turtle, the Hawk-billed Turtle, the Logger-head Turtle, and the Trunk [leather-back] Turtle. The first is considered the best as an article of food, in which capacity it is well known to most epicures. It approaches the shores, and enters the bays, inlets and rivers, early in the month of April, after having spent the winter in the deep waters. It deposits its eggs in convenient places, at two different times in May, and once again in June. The first deposit is the largest, and the last the least, the total quantity being at an average about two hundred and forty. The Hawk-billed Turtle, whose shell is so valuable as an article of commerce, being used for various purposes in the arts, is the next with respect to the quality of its flesh. It resorts to the outer keys only, where it deposits its eggs in two sets, first in July, and again in August, although it "crawls" the beaches of these keys much earlier in the season, as if to look for a safe place. The average number of its eggs is about three hundred. The Loggerhead visits the Tortugas in April, and lays from that period until late in June three sets of eggs, each set averaging a hundred and seventy. The Trunk Turtle, which is . . . ."

Audubon continues with his seven page description of turtles, and how they are captured and stored in "crawls". 

After Audubon

Bird watchers go to the Dry Tortugas, actually " Fort Jefferson" and Garden Key each spring in hopes of viewing some of the more than 200 species of migrating birds which stop there on their journey between South and North America. The Tortugas are right along the migratory flyway. The seven islands of the Tortugas provide a resting place for migratory birds. In 1935 the Fort was designated a National Monument and in 1992 it became part of the Dry Tortugas National Park. It is also possible to visit a few of the other islands in the Dry Tortugas on a restricted basis with ranger permission. Visitors can walk from Garden Key to Long Key along a sandy causeway to get a closer look at migrating bird. A sign warns visitors away from Bush Key as it is a bird rookery. During nesting season both keys are closed..

The National Park is open year round, with Fort Jefferson open during the day. It is possible to camp on Garden Key with spaces allocated on a first come first served basis. No fresh water or food concessions are available on the island and campers must bring their own water and supplies. For a sanitation facility, campers use a salt water toilet located at the dock. Park camping is suspended until further notice until the sewage system is upgraded.

 Today visitors to the Tortugas mostly go by seaplane or ferry from Key West. It takes about two and one-half hours to make the ferry voyage to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. The ample size ferry boat provides breakfast aboard during the voyage, lunch on Garden Key, an informative tour at the Fort, snorkel gear for those interested in snorkeling close to the island. The beaches are perfect for swimming. On the return voyage alcholic drinks are available for a reasonable fee.

Fort Jefferson was built after President Monroe issued his Monroe Doctrine proclaiming that the Americas were no longer open to foreign colonization. Named after President Jefferson the fort was built in the Tortugas to control shipping lanes along the Gulf Coast and Garden Key was selected as the place for its construction because it had an excellent deepwater harbor.

The fort was used during the Civil War to prevent Confederate ships from harassing Union ships and to house deserters. Dr. Samuel Mudd who treated Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was confined there for four years until he was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. The Fort was used as a coaling station for a time by the U.S. Navy and later abandoned. The gulf waters around Garden Key are favored by fishermen. In the 1930s it was a favorite fishing spot of writer, Ernest Hemingway.

 

Reservation and park information can be obtained by calling the National Park Service at 305-242-7700 or by browsing the park service website at http://www.nps.gov/drto

 

 


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