The day floods with wide blue sky and clear sunlight. Here, the only civilized sounds are the generator at night from the NPS staff quarters inside Fort Jefferson, and the discordant beeping from the bulldozer that pushes sand from the harbor side of the island to the swim beach. This is the only place in the United States where you can see the entire Southern Cross all year long - we would have, but for the constant lighthouse beam of the waxing moon.
There were 12 of us total: undergraduates, MEMs, PhD students. We were there with two goals: To band as many sooty terns as possible, and to recover 19 data loggers placed on sooty tern legs last year.
Although we are only there for four working days, we begin to fall into a routine:
8AM Head to the colony of sooty terns
12PM Break for Lunch
1PM Let the colony rest, sunbathe, swim, explore the fort
4PM Head to the colony
9PM Hanging out, learning time, or getting ready for bed
We find a data logger on Monday afternoon, a fortuitous start to our week. The birds are utterly beautiful. Also known as the "sea swallow," sooty terns are no more than foot from beak to tail-end. When they are not nesting, they spend almost all their time " on the wing," meaning, they never land. Instead, they sail down to the ocean's surface and grab food with their sharp beaks. Onyx wings take a tern swiftly across the sky. A narrow eye mask dashes from the arrowed beak across its face, which like its belly is white as a tablecloth in a gourmet restaurant. We must hand-catch and handle them gently in order to band them. Beneath the soft masses of feathers they are wiry and lean, they cry angrily at us while we secure them between index and middle finger, our thumbs and 3rd and fourth fingers holding their wings down so they don't catch and snap in the wind.
That night after dinner we try to put up mist nets to catch more birds, but it is too windy and we are getting the low-flying Brown Noddies instead of the "sooties" we want. We finally fall into our sleeping bags well after dark, the wind whipping the tent canvas.