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Discovering Audubon

Experience birding in and around one of America's

Created date

June 22nd, 2016

Ever since I was a child watching dozens of gold and purple finches splash and dance in my grandparents’ birdbath, birds have always been a source of lighthearted peacefulness.

At a backyard feeder, they offer a pause from the day’s hustle, a chance to stop and gaze as they hop and peck. With my binoculars handy, it just takes a moment to focus on a new visitor’s colors and patterns, then to flip through the Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic) to identify my new friend. And in a flash he’s gone, and it’s back to whatever task was before me just moments ago.

A visit to Key West, Fla., a couple of years back heightened my interest in birds when my family and I wandered into the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens (205 Whitehead St.). 

This lovely property commemorates naturalist John James Audubon’s six-week visit to the Keys in 1832. The home, which was actually built after Audubon’s visit, displays 8 of his original aquatint engravings, as well as all 22 of the birds he discovered in the Keys. It is also home to several pieces of nineteenth-century period furniture, which gives visitors an idea of Key West life in another, more romantic, time.

Audubon the man

Friendly and knowledgeable docents guide a tour of the house while offering bits of history. It was during our tour that my interest in Audubon, the man, was piqued. A docent suggested John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes (Random House) for the most accurate history of the man who dedicated 35 years of his life to traveling the most remote regions of a young America to identify and draw his avian subjects more accurately than anyone had done before him. 

While some visitors may find the three-story house difficult to navigate, the gardens are a true pleasure and a welcome reprieve from the city’s touristy and bustling Duvall Street. Don’t expect to see an abundance of wildlife there, however. Aside from the occasional heron, egret, or osprey, it’s not a wildlife sanctuary. But the Key West Wildlife Center (1801 White St.,, Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center (35 East Quay Rd.,, Dry Tortugas National Park (, and myriad eco-adventure tours offer plenty of opportunities to spot native and migrating birds along with other flora, fauna, and sea life. 

Where to stay 

You’ll find an abundance of resorts, hotels, B&Bs, and rental properties in and around Key West. My favorite, The Gardens Hotel (526 Angela St.,, will delight any nature lover with its lush botanical garden, boutique guest rooms, and impeccable service. Though it’s rated the number one hotel in Key West on, featured in Condé Nast Traveler, and named “prettiest hotel in Key West” by The New York Times, among other travel awards, it has the air of a hidden gem. I suppose that’s part of the charm.

Stroll through the garden and discover delightful surprises like an aviary, a family of tortoises, rare Hawaiian and Japanese orchids, and four one-ton earthenware pots called tinajones (teena-HONE-ez) from Cuba—the only ones you’ll find in the United States. 

Where to dine

After you’ve toured the city and its avian sites, you may feel like Audubon himself on one of his solo expeditions in the wilderness. But not to worry. Key West doesn’t disappoint when it comes to food and drink. Just a short walk from The Gardens Hotel you’ll find Seven Fish
( at 632 Olivia St. until August when it will move to a new location. It’s popular and small, so ask your concierge to make a reservation. 

Rated #22 on TripAdvisor, Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St., is a go-to for any meal, though it’s best known for brunch. If you find yourself there for dinner, sit outside with the chickens, the cats, and live music for a quintessential Key West experience, and order the diver sea scallops. Usually served as an appetizer, they’re worth a little selfishness. 

Take note that Blue Heaven sometimes, not always, closes in the fall. Call before you go if traveling in September or October (305-296-8666).

Aside from bird watching, Key West offers lots of people watching as well. Go with an open mind, and enjoy the stunning sunsets, buttery air, and carefree attitude of the southernmost point.


A birding paradise

Dry Tortugas National Park—a set of seven islands and islets in the Gulf Stream—is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, which attracts novice and accomplished birders alike. The 2,000-mile, self-guided highway trail connects 445 birding sites throughout Florida. 

Audubon visited the Dry Tortugas on his expedition to the Keys in 1832, preceded in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, making it a long-known site for a remarkable richness in migrating land birds and immense seabird colonies. Depending on when you go, you might see brown and black noddies, roseate and bridled terns, masked and brown boobies, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, frigates, or even hundreds of thousands of nesting sooty terns from March to September. Bring your binoculars; rookery site Bush Key is closed during nesting but can be viewed from Fort Jefferson. 

This birding paradise should be on every birder’s bucket list—and on non-birder’s too, for that matter. The main historical site and home to Fort Jefferson is located 70 miles from Key West. It is accessible by ferry aboard the Yankee Freedom III (, 1-800-634-0939), a high-speed ocean-going catamaran. Though the boat’s size cuts the chop, in rough seas it could be a treacherous trip for anyone without a good set of sea legs. 

Alternately, charter a spectacular sightseeing flight with Key West Seaplane Adventures
( Both the seaplane and Yankee Freedom III supply snorkel gear. 

However you get there, this is one birding site you don’t want to miss.