Pelicans are awesome, Laughing Gulls are assholes

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I was out at the Dry Tortugas the other day, trying to get a picture of a Roseate Tern feeding, when I shot off a few frames of a Brown Pelican diving. I never get tired of seeing Brown Pelicans. They’re kind of like the John Goodman of the bird world – big and goofy looking, but amazingly graceful. I think of them as role models.
Anyhow, caught a few frames of the pelican diving, then the splash, and then a few of a Laughing Gull, being an asshole and stealing unearned fish. (You can see the whole sequence below.)
In proper scientific terms it’s called kleptoparasitism – one bird stealing food from another as part of a foraging strategy. And it’s not a new thing. Laughing Gulls have been ripping off Brown Pelicans like this for tens of thousands of years. Since before our kind ever scratched the first picture of a stag on the wall of a cave.
The mechanics work like this: the pelican flies around until it seas some fish, then plunges head first into the water, opening it’s mouth and taking in about 20 pints of water and fish. Kind of like a seine net. Except a seine net doesn’t hold water like a pelican’s pouch – properly called a gulag sack – does.
So the pelican has to open it’s mouth a little to let the water drain out before it can be light enough to fly again. And while it’s sitting there with its mouth open, the Laughing Gulls will swoop in, jab their bills into the gap, steal a fish, and take off. If the pelican doesn’t open his mouth, the Laughing Gulls will sometimes fly in and stand on his head until he does.
It’s kind of a fish tax. An evolved, but not symbiotic, relationship.
It’s nature and really, you shouldn’t judge. But how can you not take sides? Laughing Gulls are assholes.

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Bahama Mockingbird and some Shiny Cowbirds at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West

Please credit if you share any of these. It’s the decent thing to do.

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BaMo (1 of 1)

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Shinies (1 of 1)

The Vodka House


People just call it the Vodka House.

It’s on the 1000 block of Watson Street in Key West, just off Truman, on the opposite side of Bare Assets strip club.
I don’t know anyone who’s seen it and not been gobsmacked.

It is an entire house decorated in lit up empty vodka bottles. There are several sizes of bottles used in the display, but they are all the same label: Skol.

It shows some serious dedication, not just to the hours of ingenious design and execution, but to the drinking of one type of vodka. Skol is not exactly a top shelf brand.

People tend to pull up on bikes or in cars, get out, and stare for a few minutes. Then usually say something like, “Wow. Just wow.” At least that was the pattern when I was out there they other night, taking pictures.

At one point one of the people who lived there came out and someone said, “Your house is beautiful, but that is a terrible vodka.”

The person who lived there gave a pretty good argument about how Skol is a much better vodka than more heavily marketed brand like Absolute. He also said he could make a much articulate argument in favor of Skol if, you know, he was sober. Then he bid everyone goodnight and retreated indoors.

They’ve been decorating the house like this for two or three years. I believe the passed out Santa is a new addition for 2013.

There’s a For Sale sign on the building, so I worry it won’t be there next year.

But either way you should see it if you can.

Nothing better than when people find the beauty that everyone else overlooked.

Detail photos below.


In Which I Am Nearly Killed (Killed!) By A Flying Iguana


Not the actual iguana. Photo by Mark Hedden.


Sunday morning. Coffee and the New York times. Reading a story in the Style section about how hard it is to break up with someone in the age of social media because you keep seeing the details of their lives on Facebook.

The dog barks. There is a panicked, scrambling noise immediately overhead in the mahogany tree.

I look up to get an unobstructed, full-on pectoral view of a three-and-a-half foot iguana directly above me. At first it is fifteen feet away, the thirteen, then nine. It’s feet claw at the empty air.

I leap sideways out of my chair. I think about all those peoples in movies who leap out of the way of explosions, who are sitting at sidewalk cafes and leap out of the way of cars.

I am not one of those leap-out-of-the-way in time people.

I land sideways on the deck. The iguana lands on top of me. The dog barks again but stays three feet back. There is the unforgettable feeling of iguana claws tangled in my t-shirt, and several of the more unpleasant moments of my life.*

The iguana untangles itself, sprint across the deck, dives to the bottom of the pool.

My wife comes out, wants to know why I am sprawled sideways on the deck, laughing like a freak.


*I have been hit by a semi truck while riding a bicycle. I have seen Wayne Newton perform live. I know from unpleasant.


The Kings of America Photo Project

Crown (1 of 31)

HRM Jason Rowan.


There are two ways to approach talk about a photo project: explain it or don’t.

This is a circuitous explaination of The Kings of America Photo Project.

Our friends, the Rowans, one of central clans of Key West, have an annual, sprawling Thanksgiving potluck. Forty, fifty, sixty people show up throughout the day.

Usually the weather has just broken for the season and people pull out their autumnal finery. (Long pants! Sweaters!)

A few years back, son Jason Rowan, a man with a professorial knowledge of cocktails, started the tradition of taking over work shed and temporarily converting it into the Cocktail Shed. A series of complicated and subtle concoctions, handcrafted in small batches amongst the hammers and wood clamps, ensued.

The first drink produced was, I believe the Lord Ottenbottom. Prosecco based, with a sugar cube, the recipe can be found here, at Jason’s Embury Cocktails blog. (Actually, just ditch whatever you planning to do with the rest of your day and read the entire blog. But only after you finish reading this entry.)

In years when Jason hasn’t been here, others, including me, have stepped in to fill the drink-making void, usually directed via text from Jason wherever he is.

But Jason was here this year. Sitting at a bar the other night, he was talking about making Sbagliatos, a drink accidentally derived from the Negroni when a bartender poured Prosecco into a glass instead of gin.

The name “Sbagliato” actually means mistake.

The inspiration.

From there we started talking about Elvis Costello’s song “Brilliant Mistake” which contains a couplet that has resonated pretty steadily throughout my life: It was a fine idea at the time / Now it’s brilliant mistake.

And we started talking about the whole album, King of America, which was a departure for Costello. He’d pretty much had punk tendencies up until then, but Kind of America was this lush, layered, largely acoustic album, full of shifting evocative, narratives, alternating between joy and despair with acres of ambiguity in between.

And it was decided the shed would have a King of America theme for the day. A playlist, an attitude, drinks with thematic names…

So the first drink – Jason’s version of the Sbagliato – was called A Fine Idea, or A Fine Idea At The Time, or Brillant Mistake. I’m not sure if we ever settled it. And why limit yourself to one name?

With the Prosecco instead of gin, it was a good, less alcohol-intense drink for a long day of socializing and eating.

Later in the evening he produced something a little stronger with Mezcal and JimBeam and a few other things. I proposed the name The Lonely Hearts Club Clientele Don’t Know What To Do With Their Hands, because it’s one of my favorite lines from the song “Our Little Angel” on the album. But no one else was buying in on my version of the name. Jason is vacillating between the name “Good Squad” and “This Years Girl”, though neither of those songs is on the album.

Anyhow, with the Drink Shed in Jason’s hands, I was looking for a small side project. And I always liked the cover of King of America, in which Costello looks both regal and defiant.

So I decided to ask people to pose in a cheap paper crown, alá Costello. And I kind of like the way that everyone brought their own personal interpretations of how to be King of America.

End of explanation. Results below.


Spoonbills, the Lower Keys and Rona Chang

Over Under 5237

“Over/Under” by Mark Hedden

I went on a short road trip up the Keys with Rona Chang a few weeks ago.

Rona is a photographer and was an artist-in-residence at The Studios of Key West in October. I accused her of being a street photographer, but she said no, she is a landscape photographer who wants people in her landscapes. You can see her (very cool) stuff at

This is my favorite of her shots.

“Shaving Business” by Rona Chang.


It’s from her series Moving Forward, Standing Still (Part 1).

She shot a good number of images when she was here, and this is a gallery of her Key West and Lower Keys images.

I think these are two of the highlights.

“The High Schoolers, The Nature Preserve” by Rona Chang.

“The Future Fruit Stand, Big Pine Key” by Rona Chang.


Anyhow, the first place we stopped was Boca Chica. We walked down to the stone-and-driftwood hut, then down to the salt pond. The salt pond is usually good for birds, but being there with a landscape photographer, I left my 400mm lens in the car and only brought my stubby 50mm and my Holga lenses. I think I muttered something about how this would ensure that I would see a really great bird.

And then at the salt pond, there was a young Roseate Spoonbill standing on a snag above a Great White Heron, a handful of Willets standing like movie extras in the background. And I spent a few minutes cursing that I left the big lens back in the car. I said something out loud about how if I had the big lens I could get right up the nose of that spoonbill. I might have even said it loud enough for Rona to hear.

So I took a few frames with the fifty, just to document the experience for myself, feeling ill-prepared and incompetent, like I’d missed a moment.

But then, back home, processing the images, I came across the one above. Stopped me in my tracks a little bit.

A landscape, peopled with birds.

You’d think hanging around with a photographer who shoots landscapes peopled with people this would have been an obvious thing.

You’d think having spent so much time with Rafael Galvez, who obsesses on painting birds in their natural environment (and who does very great things with that obsession), this would have been an obvious thing.

Lesson for the day: Take lots of shots, stop obsessing on lenses, figure it out later.

We made it all the way up to Marathon, where we unexpectedly crossed paths with the Marathon Homecoming Parade. I wondered what kind of school holds their homecoming parade at two in the afternoon in the hot weeks of October. Rona wondered what exactly a homecoming parade was, as apparently they don’t have such things in Manhattan, where she went to high school.

Anyhow, there are a few of my other photos from the trip below. But trust me, go look at Rona’s.

"Rona/Rocks" by Mark Hedden.

“Rona/Rocks” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (8 of 12)

“Security” by Mark Hedden.

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“Brewing” by Mark Hedden

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“Owl or Nothing” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (12 of 12)

“Overseas” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (11 of 12)

“Sweet/Grass” by Mark Hedden.

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“Platform” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (9 of 12)

“Projectiles” by Mark Hedden.

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“Curvature” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (6 of 12)

“Great/White/Solo” by Mark Hedden.


Four! Thousand! Peregrines!

Peregrine Falcon by Kerry Ross


The folks at the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at Curry Hammock State Park just hit a season count of 4,000 Peregrine Falcons for this season – more than have ever been seen during a single season anywhere else in the world.

Congratulation to Rafael Glavez, who runs the project (and saved it from the ash heap of data collection a few years ago). Also congratulations to Kerry Ross and Rachel Smith, who were the full time counters this year and some very fun folks to hang around with.

I did a piece on the count and the Peregrine Migration for WLRN, the public radio station in Miami, which you can read and/or listen here:

Birdwatchers In The Keys On Alert For Nature’s Speed Demon | WLRN.


You can also read more about the Florida Keys Hawkwatch at their blog.

Zombie Bike Ride 2013

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I love the fact that the Zombie Bike Ride has become the locals favorite event for (unofficial) Fantasy Fest. The crowds were so big that it took almost a half hour to get across Cow Key Bridge. But then again, who expects zombies to be organized?

Key Westers get very creative given half a chance.

I did a small piece for WLRN, the public radio station in Miami, which you can read and/or listen to here.

A few of my photos made it onto the webpage, but there a lot more in the gallery below.

If you share any of the photos, I would appreciate being credited.

Flasher at the Disco

It’s been said by the internet that if you flip a photo of bats upside down, it looks like they are dancing. I call this one “Flasher at the Disco.”

The Dry Tortugas Then, Now

Birdlife at the Dry Tortugas in the 1920s.

The Key West Library has a pretty amazing historic photo collection, much of which they have scanned and put on their Flickr page. Some of the best images come from the Scott de Wolfe collection.

Scanning through the photos of old buildings, ships and people wearing way too many layers of clothes for the tropics is one of the great Key West time wasters edifying experiences.

Scott de Wolfe has been kind enough to allow the library to scan many of the photos in his collection.

And now, thanks to the generosity of a donor who wished to remain anonymous, many of those photos are in the physical collection. Including the document that established Key West as an American City. (The document is here. There is a nice write-up about the collection at Littoral, the Key West Literary Seminar blog.)

The photo that stopped me in my tracks today was the one above: Birds at Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas. A cloud of Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, Brown Boobies.

It was taken in 1920.

For a moment I thought the big bird on the right of the roofline was some species lost to science – the Unicorn Booby or the Long-billed Booby. But it’s a Brown Booby and the bill is a blur from motion and a long exposure.

There are other cool photos of the Dry Tortugas in the set (see below) and of Key West (see further below).

The cloud-of-birds photo rang a gong, though. Other than the decrepit building on the beach, it feels very much like that now. It was like stepping through a wormhole, time flashing backwards and forwards until now and then are all the same wooly thing.

The first one below is almost as good, and it gives almost the same rush you get when you first make out the fort from the bow of the ferry.

But that cloud of birds photo. Damn.

The approach to the fort.

Fort under construction.

Fort under dilapidation.

When people go to the fort for the first time, they always want to know what the iron pilings were. They supported the coaling docks on the left of the photo.

The old barracks in glorious decay.

At least one of them might be a birder.

Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West used to be waterfront. And waterback.

This is a Key West photo. I believe the Southernmost Point should be replaced wit a giant stack of cannonballs. It would look much cooler. And people might be a little afraid of it.

So much cooler than a Conch Train.

Key West doing it’s TImes Square impersonation. To the left is a green neon sign pointing the way to the Bamboo Room, which was still a going concern when I moved to Key West. Despite the name, as I recall it was a lesbian bar.


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