[Fig. 4] If bird-watching is your interest, then your vacation begins in earnest in Tavernier, a small settlement of about 3,000 residents on the lower end of Key Largo.
If the center is open, you'll want to pick up a copy of the booklet Birding the Florida Keys from the National Audubon Society Tavernier Science Center at 115 Indian Mound Trail, Tavernier, FL 33070. Phone (305) 852-5092. (Indian Mound Trail turns off US 1 Bayside near MM 89.) The booklet is available for a small donation. It's an insider's guide to some of the hottest birding spots throughout the Keys.
From below Key Largo to Key West birding enthusiasts should look for birds everywhereon the wires and poles along the road, on the mud flats visible at the ends of bridges, and at the end of side roads that go to the bay. The best birding will almost always be at low tide.
Binoculars or a spotting scope will vastly enhance your trip. Many birds on mud flats or in mangrove rookeries are some distance from the road, or difficult to walk out to.
[Fig. 4(1)] A walk through the Wild Bird Center isn't a Disney World kind of experience. It's all too real and disturbing. But for those concerned about the plight of Florida's diminishing wild creatures, a visit to the facility between Tavernier and Key Largo can be both heartening and thought provoking.
The 5.5-acre complex was opened in June 1991, by retired teacher Laura Quinn. Quinn is the director, and she and the other volunteers are happy to discuss the center's goals with visitors. Don't be offended by the natural odors or be concerned about pollution of Florida Bay. Officials say environmental studies have determined that runoff from the center hasn't polluted the bay and actually may be promoting the growth of sea grasses.
The center's fourfold mission is to reduce the suffering of sick and injured wild birds, reduce the occasions of injury by better educating the public, reduce environmental hazards that place the birds at risk, and increase the number of birds, both common and endangered, released to live in the wild again. The center's components consist of treatment and laboratory facilities, natural habitats, and educational exhibits.
Birds receiving care at the facility range from least terns to magnificent frigatebirds and red-footed boobies (Sula sula). The injured include a variety of sea gulls, pelicans, hawks, owls, herons, and egrets. Bald eagles, ospreys, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), and double-crested cormorants are regularly cared for.
Most injured birds have run afoul of humans. Many are snagged by fishermen or get wrapped up in monofilament fishing line. Others are struck by automobiles and boats, and some are even deliberately shot and maimed.
Loss of habitat is the most serious ongoing problem facing the Keys bird populations. The surging human population is rapidly eradicating shallow-water mangrove swamps, transitional wetlands, freshwater ponds, and hardwood hammocks. Over 40 percent of shallow-water mangrove pools in the Upper Keys were destroyed for housing and other human uses between 1955 and 1985 and the problem has only accelerated since then.
Birds are brought to the rehabilitation center from throughout the Keys and South Florida. About 30 to 40 percent of the more than 1,000 admitted in a typical year are successfully treated and released. Others with catastrophic injuries remain permanent residents.
Visitors follow a zigzagging wooden boardwalk past 25 natural habitats. Each shelters birds that have sustained crippling injuries. Signs tell their sad stories. Broad-winged hawks "Spike" and "Stumpy" have amputated wings. "Gary," a Cooper's hawk brought here from Key West, is permanently disabled by a broken wing. "Harriet," a large female osprey with one wing that has been amputated at the wrist has been here since 1993. Volunteers say she helps the other ospreys adjust to living in an enclosure and being dependent on humans for survival.
The largest enclosure houses dozens of injured brown pelicans. It's the only habitat visitors are allowed to walk into. Stay behind the yellow line and watch the birds interact with each another.
The center augments the diets of wild, free-flying, healthy birds that perch in trees and the roofs of habitats around the center, but only for a two-hour period each day. A sign explains: "Humans have encroached on their habitats and feeding areas and it is difficult for them to find enough food. We supplement their diets, but don't provide them with all they'd gladly eat. So, they're still compelled to hunt for food in the wild and not become dependent on humans."
On the boardwalk, the first area you'll come to is a transitional wetlanda salt marsh and buttonwood habitat found between the dry hammock and the swampy wetlands. Plants from both these areas include ground-covering sea oxeye daisy (Borrichia frutescens) and saltwort (Batis maritima), as well as buttonwood, Spanish stopper, blackbead (Pithecellobium guadalupense), and saffron-plum (Bumelia celastrina), a food source for the threatened white-crowned pigeon. Succulents include prickly pear and barbed-wire cactus (Cereus pentagonus). The exposed rock is Key Largo Limestone, the ancient coral reef that the Keys are built on.
The boardwalk next passes into a mangrove-dominated wetland typical of the shoreline along Florida Bay. The mangrove trees form the first rung on the food chain in this nutritionally rich ecosystem. Leaves and other organic debris collected in the wetlands are broken down by bacteria and fungi, which provides nutrients to small organisms. In turn, these organisms serve as a food source for larger birds and mammals.
The ground cover is saltwort, sea lavender (Tournefortia gnaphalodes), and sea purslane. Farther on, two solution holes were formed when cap rock broke up and began to sink. The holes' rich nutrients support black mangrove and white mangrove trees and numerous wetland creatures including the mosquito-eating gambusia fish. Many species of birds and other marsh inhabitants feed at the holes.
Near the solution holes, rocky, saline terrain stunts the growth of mangroves and other trees. The trail ends at a slightly elevated, bayside berm where trees root in a nutritious environment and grow to normal size.
Coconut Palm Inn
MM 92 Bayside, Tavernier. If you're looking for a quiet, unfussy, off-the-beaten-path place to while away a few days, one not listed in most tourist guides, Coconut Palm Inn could be your kind of place. Although not well known even by the locals, divers, fishermen, and budget-conscious Europeans and Australians have faithfully stayed at the haven year after year.
Parts of the resort date back to the 1930s. In the mid-1980s, the current owners Frank Johnson and his wife spent more than three years restoring the motel.
Simply furnished guest rooms have kitchenettes, cable TV, air conditioning, and in-room phones for local calls. The Johnsons have added landscaping, a fishing dock, and a pool. Special diving/training packages are available. There is no restaurant or bar, but the Copper Kettle on the Overseas Highway is an excellent place for breakfast and first-rate conch chowder at lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive. Web site www. coconutpalminn.com. Phone (305) 852-3017. Fax (305) 852-3880.