March 21, 2013
Masked Booby
Masked Booby

After Deva and I saw Jeanne Robertson on stage last month, I got to thinking about all the funny things that happen to lifelong birders.  If you’re not familiar with Jeanne Robertson, google her.  With nary a four-letter word nor a sexual innuendo, her side-splitting humor emphasizes laughter as life’s best medicine and how the best laughter comes from our own personal stories.  Beginning with this column, I’m going to run three of my favorite fun birding stories in the months to come.  Here’s the first.

It was May, 1988, and Deva and I were aboard the Yankee Freedom out of Key West for our first birding “tour,” a VENT trip to the Dry Tortugas.  The boat docked at Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, birders slept on the boat, then went ashore during the day to look for exhausted cross-water passerine migrants inside the fort, now a national park most famous as the incarceration site of Dr. Samuel Mudd who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination.

One of our guides on this tour was Kenn Kaufman, now an icon in the birding world, then honeymooning on board with his second wife, Lynn Hassler.  On each Tortugas tour, the Yankee Freedom took an afternoon side trip to observe the Masked Boobies which nested on nearby Hospital Key but were seldom seen from the fort.  Hospital key itself was off limits, so the boat simply rode at anchor for a few minutes to afford scope views of the nesting birds.  On the day of our Hospital Key jaunt, the group had spent a long, humid morning working the fort, come back to the boat for lunch, then had a couple free hours to shower, nap, or study before the departure for the twenty minute ride to see the Masked Boobies.

Let me tell you a little bit about the shower facilities on the boat.  There was one shower.  If the door was shut, it was occupied.  Unoccupied, it was left open.  On this afternoon there was a waiting line, and Deva was last in line but knew she was cutting it close.  Sure enough, I saw her go into the shower moments before the boat pulled anchor and set out for Hospital Key.  I went up to the deck to wait for her.  She didn’t show up and didn’t show up . . . .  Finally, as the boat slowed and dropped anchor off the booby colony, I hurried around both sides of the deck but didn’t see her.

Afraid she was luxuriating in the shower and would miss a life bird, I ran down the steps to the shower.  The door was shut, the water running.  Exasperated, I yanked open the door.  As steam poured out into the cabin area, I could see a female figure moving under the shower head, an article of red clothing on the bench.  At the top of my voice I yelled for her to hurry up, the boat was already anchoring, slammed the door, and ran back up to the deck.  There was Deva, calmly looking through a scope at the boobies!  Uh, oh.

Five minutes later Lynn Hassler Kaufman, wet hair still dripping onto her red t-shirt, walked up the stairs onto the deck.  No sexual innuendoes, please, about the common name of the nesting birds we were observing there on Hospital Key.