The Vodka House

VodkaHouse.5988

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

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.

 

-30-
*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 www.ronachang.com.

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.

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-3

“Brewing” by Mark Hedden

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-2

“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.

Lower Keys Road Trip (1 of 1)-5

“Platform” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (9 of 12)

“Projectiles” by Mark Hedden.

Lower Keys Road Trip (7 of 12)

“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.”
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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.

 

Dry Tortugas Trip Report

Brown Boobies on a channel marker.

Brown Boobies on a channel marker near Fort Jefferson.

A birding trip to the Dry Tortugas during the migration season can be hit or miss. But if it’s a miss, it’s a pretty nice miss – a ride across some of the world’s bluest ocean, a few birds you most likely won’t see anywhere else, a day amidst palm trees and historical semi-ruins. If there aren’t any birds you can snorkel in a pristine aquatic wilderness.

The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife festival Dry Tortugas trip was a hit.

The first harbinger of a good birding day was the pair of Sooty Terns in Rebecca Channel. The Yankee Freedom was moving at about 30 knots, so it was a quick view, but most of the folks got decent looks at the birds.

The Masked Booby colony on Hospital Key.

The Masked Booby colony on Hospital Key. (Click photo to see it in detail.)

Knowing that there were so many birders on the boat, Captain Rick steered a course as close as possible to Hospital Key, which is the only Masked Booby Colony in North America. The outer islands at the Dry Tortugas are primarily made of sand and periodically grow and shrink according to the whims of the ocean. Hospital Key seems to be in a shrinking phase. There were about 50 Masked Boobies on an island with about the square footage of a tennis court. When you think about it, this is the only bit of land some of these birds have ever been in contact with.

There was one booby floating in the ocean as we approached, and we had the chance to watch it take flight, working to get up out of the water, then slicing out, with the greatest of ease, over the ocean.

A Masked Booby taking flight.

A Masked Booby taking flight.

There were also a number of Brown Boobies on the channel markers, and it should be noted that there is nothing that gives a bird guide pause like having to say “I’ve got a pair of immature Brown Boobies” on a boat full of non-birders. (The crew on the Yankee Freedom stylistically refers to them as “booby birds” to avoid this issue, something I intend to remember to do in the future.)

Omnipresent throughout the day were Magnificent Frigatebirds. There were about a hundred in the air at all times.

The group birding at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Dick Fortune &amp; Sara Lopez. See their great bird photography at <a href="http://www.throughthelensgallery.com/-/throughthelensgallery/default.asp">Through The Lens Gallery</a>.

The group birding at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Dick Fortune & Sara Lopez. See their great bird photography at Through The Lens Gallery.

The plan, when we got there, was to head across the drawbridge and into the fort, and to leave our stuff at the water fountain. And to work slowly around the perimeter, searching high and low for any birds we could find.

The plan went awry quickly, and not because the water fountain that’s been at the fort for decades seems to have disappeared.

We dropped our bags near the benches where the fountain used to be. Two hours later we hadn’t moved out of the immediate area of the benches. We just kept seeing new birds in the same trees. A lot of the birds you would expect – Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Palm Warblers – but a lot of the birds you wouldn’t – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler, a Blackburnian Warbler, a small armada of Yellow Warblers. (Oddly we saw no Prairie Warblers.)

A Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Hatch-year Chestnut-sided Warbler.

A Blackburnian Warbler.

A Blackburnian Warbler.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, then an American Kestrel. We saw a Gray-cheeked Thrush, then a slew of Swainson’s Thrushes.

After lunch we did manage a circuit around the parade ground. The oddest bird of the day was a Brown Thrasher – not exactly rare, but definitely not one of the usual suspects at the Tortugas. We also saw a Blue Grosbeak and a White-eyed Vireo that we studied for a time, trying to turn it into something more unusual.

We also made it over to the campground area for a brief time, where we had very good looks at a Swainson’s Warlber flipping over leaves in the shadows, looking for bugs.

A Sandwich Tern flying by the fort.

A Sandwich Tern flying by the fort.

By the time the Yankee Freedom cast off for the trip home, we’d seen 55 species.

We’d seen a lot of birds during the day, but we knew were we weren’t being thorough. Getting back on the ferry knowing there were so many birds we probably missed was difficult

There was some consolation for the four or five of us spent most of the trip home riding on the bow. About ten miles from the fort the ferry’s path converged with that of a Pomarine Jaeger (light adult, nonbreeding plumage). The jeager flew in front of the boat for about about a hundred yards, then veered south in the general direction of Cuba.

 

The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival
Dry Tortugas Bird List for September 29, 2013

  1. Brown Pelican
  2. Magnificent Frigatebird
  3. Masked Booby
  4. Brown Booby
  5. Double-crested Cormorant
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Great Egret
  8. Cattle Egret
  9. Green Heron
  10. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  11. American Kestrel
  12. Merlin
  13. Peregrine Falcon
  14. Black-bellied Plover
  15. Willet
  16. Ruddy Turnstone
  17. Short-billed Dowitcher
  18. Pomarine Jaeger
  19. Laughing Gull
  20. Royal Tern
  21. Sandwich Tern
  22. Sooty Tern
  23. Eurasian Collared-dive
  24. Morning Dove
  25. Rock Dove
  26. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  27. Eastern Kingbird
  28. Red-eyed Vireo
  29. White-eyed Vireo
  30. Barn Swallow
  31. Cliff Swallow
  32. Swainson’s Thrush
  33. Gray-cheeked Thrush
  34. Brown Thrasher
  35. Tennessee Warbler
  36. Orange-crowned Warbler
  37. Northern Parula
  38. Yellow Warbler
  39. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  40. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  41. Blackburnian Warbler
  42. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  43. Palm Warbler
  44. Yellow-throated Warbler
  45. Black-and-white Warbler
  46. American Redstart
  47. Northern Waterthrush
  48. Ovenbird
  49. Swainson’s Warbler
  50. Magnolia Warbler
  51. Hooded Warbler
  52. Summer Tanager
  53. Blue Grosbeak
  54. Orchard Oriole
  55. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  56. Empidonax Flycatcher (sp)

Start With The Chuck

Chuck-will's-widow

The first post on a blog is supposed to be an act of throat clearing — statement of purpose, who you are, etc. But, feh, boring. It’s best not to write what you don’t want to read.

My name is Mark. I like birds.

The photo above is of a Chuck-will’s-widow. It is a member of the goatsucker family. (Non birders: commence tittering. Birders: commence acting like the name isn’t funny.)

Goatsuckers are night workers. They got the name because it was believed they stole milk from the udders of unsuspecting goats. Which they do not. What they do do is fly around in the dark with their mouths open, catching bugs.

Like many night workers, they sleep all day. To avoid getting noticed or eaten they have what is called cryptic plumage, meaning they use sleight-of-feather to trick people and other critters into not seeing them. It is camouflage beyond camouflage. (It is the shallow depth of field that makes the bird in the above photo obvious. The wide-view photo of the yard below makes it a little harder.)

Usually you don’t see Chuck-will’s-widows until you almost step on them and they sort of huff in resignation, leap into the air like a feathered, benign Bouncing Betty, and fly off.

I was talking with someone last year, trying to answer the question of what I like about birding, and I decided that the things that make me happiest are the surprises. I like it when something I hadn’t quite grasped before, or expected, suddenly makes itself apparent or known. It could be an aspect of a bird I hadn’t noticed before — say the baffle in the middle of a Peregrine Falcon’s nostril, or the gator-like scaliness of a Great Egret’s foot. Or it could be a bird I hadn’t seen before — like the possible (possible possible) Caribbean Martin Carl Goodrich found at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West spring.

Chuck-will’s-widows are almost always surprises. You never see them until they are leaving. Sometimes you can re-find them, but more often, you just lose track of them in the shadows.

This was one of the few Chuck’s that didn’t surprise me. Because it was found by my friend Kimberly. She sent me an email after she saw it in her backyard, thought it might be an owl, and thought it might be injured – which is a pretty normal response to seeing your first Chuck.

Chuck-will’s-widow are so convinced you can’t see them that their flight response can seem nonexistent. And it’s a strategy that has worked well for them for thousands and thousands of years. But it often perplexes humans, who are used to birds being much more skittish, and therefore think something must be wrong.

Find the Chuck-will's-widow.

Find the Chuck-will’s-widow.

When I stopped by Kimberly’s with my camera, the bird hadn’t moved all morning.

I sat down on the ground in the backyard and the bird did not care. I belly-crawled to within five yards of the thing, and the bird still did not care.

It is tempting to say that the bird did not even bother to open its eyes, but if you look at the photo, its eye is actually open. Chucks have huge eyes, the better to see at night. They are not inclined to open them fully during the excessive light of day, and as a result they tend to view things with a slitted reserve.

I took about as many photos as I could need, then just watched for a while. The wind gusted slightly. A Turkey Vulture flew overhead. The Chuck did nothing.

I thought for a while — tried to take in — the way it’s bill was so high and came off the forehead like the prow on a ship. The way the bill was proportionally tiny but was really like the tip of an iceberg, hiding a mouth five times bigger, hiding a mouth with a gape wide enough to swallow a small bird or bat whole.

And there is was — the buzz, the heady frisson of seeing something new in something you’ve seen dozens of times before.