Mark Hedden: Steward of the Florida Keys Audubon Society

Mark Hedden is a well-known "bird man" in the Florida Keys. He is the executive director of the Florida Keys Audubon Society and the artist-in-residence at The Studios of Key West. Hedden has a deep love and knowledge of birds, which is evident in his photography.

Recently, Hedden exhibited his photography at The Studios of Key West. The exhibition, called "South of Southernmost", documents scenes from Ballast Key, a federally protected haven for birds and lemon sharks. Hedden has made more than 30 trips to Ballast Key, and he is very familiar with the island and its inhabitants.

Hedden's photography is not only beautiful, but it also tells a story. His photo-narrative series "On the Hook" documents Key West's liveaboard boat community, and "A Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World" showcases street scenes during the Fantasy Fest celebration.

Hedden is also a published author. He writes a weekly column called "Wild Things", and he has also written two books: "On the Hook" and "A Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World".

Hedden's passion for photography and writing is evident in all that he does. He is an excellent storyteller, and he uses his photography and writing to inspire others to appreciate the natural world. He is also an accomplished musician, and he enjoys playing poker with friends and bike riding around Key West.

A conversation between Keys Traveler & Mark Hedden

Keys Traveler: When did you first come to the Florida Keys and why?

Mark Hedden: In 1987. In college, I came down to visit a friend working in West Palm [Beach]. She picked me up at the airport and said, “We’re going to Key West!” I was like, “Sure, fine, wherever that is.” My strongest memory is getting here after dark and not being able to find the ocean.

KT: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you?

MH: I love the way that the natural world intersects with your everyday life here, the way you can see a bald eagle while you’re driving to the grocery store. The way you can see magnificent frigate birds and white-crowned pigeons, birds you don’t really see in the rest of the country, nearly every day. A few minutes ago there was a painted bunting at my feeder.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys’ natural world?

MH: I was a nascent birdwatcher when I met Fran Ford in the 1990s, and she kind of dragged me into the Florida Keys Audubon Society before I knew what it really was. That changed my life. Fran passed away a few years ago, but there are a number of folks whose lives she changed. We try to do her legacy proud.

KT: How does that passion influence your work or profession?

MH: The Florida Keys Audubon Society is a great platform for learning about the natural world of the Keys. Part of the way I learned about birds is by writing about them for Key West Weekly. Nothing sharpens the mind like people believing you know what you’re talking about, and you doing your best not to prove them wrong.

KT: What are some of the ways, personally or through your work, that you connect with and/or help protect the local environment and unique lifestyle?

MH: I always feel connected to the landscape and seascape here. Watching the way birds use the habitat — what trees they like to feed in or roost in, where they spend their time, where they don’t — all of that gives you an idea of what’s at stake.

KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

MH: Being able to walk out my door and have no idea what kind of wildlife I’m going to encounter that day.

KT: What do you hope your positive environmental actions will accomplish?

MH: Curiosity is one of the great underutilized tools in environmentalism. And if I do anything useful, it’s trying to foster that sense in others.

KT: What’s your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys?

MH: There is nothing better than walking around Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in late April or early May. It’s peak migration. It can be mind-boggling — the diversity of bird species.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter?

MH: That there is this whole other crazy layer of life in the Keys that’s easy to miss. I didn’t really tune into the bird life for the first five or eight years I lived here. But once you tune into it, you’ll never stop learning.