Dry Tortugas May 03—06, 2006

Posted by Kim Eckert


Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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Unique. I can think of no better word to describe the Dry Tortugas. It’s simply a place like no other?a place every birder should see at least once.

Consider, for starters, that four species nest there and nowhere else in the United States: Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy. The boobies are on that tiny sand bar known as Hospital Key, a barren spot that looks anything but hospitable. (But they don’t call them boobies for nothing!) Frigatebirds from their Long Key rookery silently hang in the air all day above the brick walls of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key, apparently waiting for something to happen. (It never does while I’m watching.) Tens of thousands of Sooty Terns nest on nearby Bush Key, their underparts transformed from white to blue-green as they fly low and reflect the water’s colors. The noddies nest on Bush Key too, but many hang out on the old rusted coal docks on Garden Key, challenging birders to pick out a Black Noddy from their midst.

Consider as well Fort Jefferson itself. Eighteen million bricks make it just about the largest brick structure in the hemisphere, and for what? They worked on it for three decades in the 1800s, it never was finished, and the only use it ever had was as a prison during and after the Civil War. Ridiculous! In a way, though, it still houses prisoners, as Cattle Egrets quietly march around the parade grounds, stalking essentially nonexistent insects. Some starve. Others hang out by the fort’s percolating fountain and survive on birds attracted to the water. This year one of them was seen as it snatched a redstart, another caught something we never did identify, and a third egret dunked a Barn Swallow in the fountain before consuming it.

You never know what migrant, desperate for a place to land, will show up at the fountain, in the trees within and around the fort, or by the lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key. Or even on the boat we take to get there from Key West: on this tour, both a Black-throated Green Warbler and a Magnolia Warbler attempted to land on our boat while we were far from shore, but shied away from our presence. And how did that Broad-winged Hawk ever make it to Loggerhead Key, and could it ever manage to leave? (If possible, this species always avoids migrating over large bodies of water.)

This year’s tour presented us with fewer reasons to fret over the survival of migrants, since there were no weather fronts to produce a fallout. We managed a modest total of 14 warbler species, but the birding at the fort did not disappoint. There were sightings of a Shiny Cowbird or two, a Short-eared Owl of the Antillean race (or species?), a fulva Cave Swallow (another possible split), and a Black Noddy finally scoped out at Bush Key from the roof of Fort Jefferson, with just enough time for all to see before dark. All four of these birds are probably annual here; can that be said of any other site in the U.S.?

I almost forgot. There were buoys with Brown Boobies and Roseate Terns, and both Audubon’s Shearwaters and Bridled Terns crossing our boat’s bow as we returned to Key West. But I’ll stop there. Again, this is a unique place and a unique tour, and if I say any more you’ll think I?m exaggerating.