Jenise Erikson is a Louisiana native, but currently lives in the mountains of Arkansas. She has an M.A. in English and a B.A. in Criminal Justice and worked in the construction industry for many years as well as being reared in a cabinet shop. She likes being outdoors whether hiking, mountain biking, painting or writing.
We live in a grand world and can’t experience it all personally, but we can learn from one another. That’s the beauty of words. Please visit her website at: Mama's Madness
Getting Wet with Birders
One of North America’s least accessible national parks, The Dry Tortugas, lies 70 miles off the coast of Key West in the shallow flats of the Gulf of Mexico. Beautiful sandy beaches surround the eleven acre fort, Fort Jefferson. I recently visited the Tortugas on a trip with my birder family members, my father, sister and brother-in-law. They sought to add four “lifers” to their bird list where these rare birds resided.
Opting for the seaplane over the ferry, the forty-five minute flight hung 500 feet above the lapping waves and offered views of sea turtles, sharks, sting rays, flying fish and porpoises. The sea-bed only thirty feet deep contained sand dunes that illuminated the sea life swimming close to the surface. Smaller keys appeared occasionally where Aves congregated for a respite from the air.
We circled the Garden Key, touched down on the water and motored onto shore. My first experience on a seaplane did not disappoint as we bailed out with our snorkeling gear, cameras, and scopes (tripod included).
The Dry Tortugas claims to have some of the best living coral reef in North America. We were cautioned to stand only in the sandy areas and not touch or stand on the coral. A beginning snorkeler, I headed to the North Swim Beach with a mini-man-made bay where I could ease my way into the underwater world gingerly. Beneath the water, the moat surrounding the fort had become a shelter for tropical fish as the coral spread out before its walls. Yellow smallmouth grunts, angelfish, trunkfish, and butterfly fish floated amongst the crevices of the brick, undeterred by my presence. Schools of tiny silver fish swam around me like underwater raindrops.
Across the mini-bay, under pillars from a former dock, I found larger fish such as the spotlight parrotfish and a variety of grouper. Imagine swimming in an oversized aquarium where the bottom is sandy white, the water is clean and clear and the fish are colorful blues, golds, stripes, whites and fluorescent greens. On the south side of the island near the dock ruins, ladders, anchors, and log poles were encased in marine plant life. The ocean lived like tourists in paradise.
Back on shore, shells and dead coral covered the beaches, but not allowed off the island. I walked past the cactus plants and a protected nest of sea turtle eggs and down the path to the entrance of the fort. As I crossed the bridge over the moat, I recalled my father, a former biologist, mentioning crocodiles are sometimes blown in by hurricanes and find a home in the moat, so I scurried across the walkway hastily and entered the interior of the fort populated with both native and nonnative plants which sprout from seeds brought in by the tide. Although the environment is subtropical, the land feels arid, and the island name is applicable since no fresh water exists naturally on the island.
Construction began in 1825 with the erecting of a lighthouse, and the building of Fort Jefferson started later in 1846, but was never completed. In 1908, the fort became a wildlife refuge to protect nesting birds, but it was not until 1992 that the fort became a National Park. I took my time and walked the halls of the old, sturdy garrison, visualizing the soldier that never manned the cannons protruding out the windows with a view of the sea. The massive structure is well maintained by the staff residing in one portion of the fort. Peering out an east wall window, my fellow birders had made camp near the border of the Bush Key where most of the birds flew in circles to and fro the water. I eased my way in their direction and found them lounging in the water, tuckered from their birding. Yes, tuckered from birding. While the idea of birding appears mostly passive, my week with the birders proved they work for their “lifers”. They respect the creatures they chase to see, and it is places like state and national parks that provide safe environments for the families and orders of birds populating our nation to thrive.I traveled to Florida to see my family, to visit the Everglades and the Keys, but the search for birds in the places we visited magnified the life surviving in their natural habitats, and I saw more than a wild environment for animals. I saw our pulsating earth, breathing. It invited me back.