National Geographic : 1947 Feb
Blizzard of Birds: The Tortugas Terns BY ALEXANDER SPRUNT, JR. Southern Representative, National Audubon Society WHEN in 1513 Ponce de Leon discov ered the low-lying Dry Tortugas in the Gulf of Mexico, the seeker of eternal youth must have been puzzled as his galleon neared the islands. Over one of them hung a peculiar dark-hued haze, a shifting curtain which grew larger, then smaller, ex panding and contracting endlessly. As the ship held to her course the mystery was dissipated, for that moving curtain finally was seen to be composed of-birds! Approaching the Dry Tortugas today, one sees the same haze, the same curtain which rises and falls, swells and shrinks, hovering over the sands like a vast, shapeless coronet. Now, as then, it is made up of birds. Fort, Prison, Naturalist's Paradise Still unfamiliar to many Americans are these seven low islands of shell and coral sand which bask in the warm Gulf waters some 70 miles west of Key West, Florida.* Mention of them frequently elicits a blank stare and the query, "What and where are the Dry Tortugas?" Yet on one of the islands, Garden Key, sprawls historic old Fort Jefferson, now a National Monument. This fortress which never fired a shot in war has known its share of death and drama. It once served as the Na tion's loneliest prison, and here Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, of Maryland, imprisoned for setting the broken leg of Lincoln's assassin, rose from chains to lead the heroic fight against the 1867 yellow fever epidemic which sowed these sands with graves (pages 216, 217, 222-225). Aside from those familiar with Fort Jeffer son and its story, there are two groups whose eyes light up at mention of the Dry Tortugas. They are marine biologists and ornithologists - the fish and bird men (and women).** Thus, despite the dominating influence of that ghost fortress, the Dry Tortugas have an other claim to prominence. They are a nat uralist's paradise, a treasure house of be wildering beauty, both above and below the colorful waters which all but engulf their coral sands. Islands Named for Sea Turtles That this was apparent even to their earliest explorers is attested by written records. Though evidently not naturalists, some of these men took enough trouble to set down figures. What they referred to simply as "birds" were doubtless the same two predomi- nant species of terns which live there today. The first allusion to Tortugas wildlife goes back to the very beginning, in the historian Antonio de Herrera's account of the discovery of the islands by Ponce de Leon. He tells why the Spanish explorer named them Islas de las Tortugas, or Islands of the Turtles.t "In one short time in the night," he wrote, "they took . . . one hundred and sixty tor toises, and might have taken many more if they had wanted them. They also took four teen seals and there were killed many pelicans and other birds. .. ." It is these "other birds" to which particular interest clings. Another early account tells of the numerous birds found by John Hawkins, an English sea captain trading in slaves, when he landed at the Tortugas in 1565: "The captain went in with his pinesse, and found such a number of birds, that in halfe an houre he loaded her with them; and if they had beene ten boats more, they might have done the like." But not until the 19th century did an ornithologist come to this teeming wonder land of birds and leave a record of his visit. More than 250 years had elapsed since Cap tain Hawkins landed his "pinesse" when, in May, 1832, the United States Revenue Service cutter Marion came to the Turtle Islands, bearing John James Audubon. In his graphic style he gave an account of what he saw. A Storm of Wings "On landing," wrote that tireless seeker of birds, "I felt for a moment as if the birds would raise me from the ground, so thick were they all round, and so quick the motion of their wings. Their cries were indeed deafen ing, yet not more than half of them took to wing on our arrival .. "We ran across the naked beach, and as we entered the thick cover before us, and spread in different directions, we might at every step have caught a sitting bird, or one scrambling through the bushes to escape us. "Some of the sailors, who had more than once been there before, had provided them *See Map of the Southeastern United States, supplement with this issue of the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE. ** See "Life on a Coral Reef (Dry Tortugas)," by W. H. Longley, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1927. t The lack of springs and abundance of sea turtles account for the present name, Dry Tortugas.