Sighted: The bird lady of Key West

WISE birders heading down the Florida Keys frequently look for two things when they reach the end of Route 1 in Key West: white-crowned pigeons and Mrs. Frances Hames, not necessarily in that order. Mrs. Hames, a slight, sprightly birder of indeterminate years, has been for more than four decades a beacon to Keys birders. To both ornithologists and just plain bird nuts she is Mrs. Audubon.

One clear morning I found her sitting on the steps of her home with the Audubon Society's Herb Kale, Miami's Wes Biggs, and a Vermont visitor reporting on what they had sighted on a three-day boat outing to the Dry Tortugas. They sought her opinion on the subject of migrations.

Earlier in the week a Harrisburg, Pa., contingent had called, hats in hand, to invite her for a ramble around the old island town. A 15-year-old fledgling birder had seen her cited in reports and made the contact, wanting to compare bird notes. Mrs. Hames's popularity seems to spread by printed word, as well as from bird watcher to bird watcher.

Not long ago, my wife and I inveigled the veteran bird watcher to take a trip 10 miles up the Keys to Boca Choa, the first one north of Key West. As we drove along 941 off the main road, she asked us to stop.

``I hear a great crested flycatcher,'' she said over the motor's noise.

Mrs. Hames's hearing has actually become keener with age, and she usually hears a bird before spotting it, even when waves are gurgling and engines are rumbling. Sure enough, there the flycatcher perched atop an orchid tree by a bay. Farther along, she again stopped us. ``That's a black-whiskered vireo, and red wings.'' Right as rain on all counts.

Mrs. Hames likes to recall in her Smoky Mountain-rounded drawl how ignorant she was when she first got hooked on bird-watching in the Georgia capital. ``I was very green. I thought that February day I had spotted a black and white warbler. Dr. LePlaid, who had a collection of bird skins, was skeptical. Turned out it was a brown creeper. You can learn a lot from a single mistake,'' she chuckles.

Mrs. Hames first came to Key West 43 years ago for a winter vacation after hearing her boss extol its climate and ``the big white birds.'' She saw it for herself on a fortnight's holiday, and spotted the great white herons that her Atlanta employer had described.

For a number of years, Mrs. Hames vacationed in the Keys, then finally, in l942, adopted it as her home. For more than 20 years, she combined her part-time bird watching with a full-time job as a civilian Navy employee. These days she goes away summers, sometimes to Washington State to visit a brother on Puget Sound. She has birded across Canada and in every state, including Alaska, but Hawaii.

On my first outing with Mrs. Hames, we started out by traipsing through the breakfast room of the then recently completed Pier House off the Mallory Docks in Key West. At one end it jutted into the harbor, and on pilings the gulls and terns would settle for a rest, a good viewing spot for us to learn the many species of gulls and other shore birds.

A breakfaster, napkin in hand, hurried up to us. ``I see by your binoculars you must be birders. I'm from the Massachusetts Audubon,'' she said. I introduced her to Mrs. Hames, mentioning that she was the woman who first saw the Key West quail dove in the Everglades. Whereupon the Bay Stater actually bowed.

Mrs. Hames, however, disclaims the honor of rediscovering the shy bird that Audubon painted when he stayed in Key West and which he named after that port.

``They were seeing it for a week before I went up to look when a friend offered me a lift,'' she says. ``I saw it at dusk on a trail called Mosquito Road about a mile above Flamingo in Everglades National Park.''

Like all pros, Mrs. Hames is never didactic. From experience she has learned that birds aren't always where they are supposed to be. She has been watching great cormorants on a saltwater pond not far from her Key West home. For two years they have been hobnobbing with the double-crested cormorant. Normally they'd be in New England in winter.

A walking tour with ``Mrs. Audubon'' isn't just birds, but the floraculture of the island as well -- and its colorful residents who greet her warmly. It wouldn't be the same for birders in Key West without her.

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