Dry Tortugas May 02—05, 2007
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
The Dry Tortugas are one of those locations that every birder has to visit at least once. These islands are on par with areas like Southeast Arizona, South Texas, High Island, Point Pelee, or Cape May?areas that you can always talk about with other birders, because chances are they’ve either already been there, or they are planning to go. Birders want to come here for three main reasons: Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy all have their only North American nesting colonies here; it can be a fantastic spot to witness concentrations of migrant birds; and it also has quite a reputation for turning up rarities. While the breeding birds are somewhat of a sure thing, we were very fortunate on this year’s trip to experience great success on the other two counts, plus we had fantastic pelagic birding on the way there!
As we were dragging ourselves out of our bunks on the first morning, Capt. Jo Jo already had us in the birds. We stepped out onto the deck to see an offshore light tower next to the boat that was covered in birds, including four gorgeous Roseate Terns. These endangered terns are very localized in their distribution along the east coast and spend much of their time far offshore. After that, we headed for deeper water and soon hit the jackpot?a weed line! When two different masses of water come together they concentrate all sorts of floating vegetation and debris in a line along their convergence. This provides cover for smaller fish, which attract larger fish, and all of these fish attract birds! It’s often hard work to get a good look at a Bridled Tern on this crossing, but on this day we saw at least 50 and had outstanding looks at many of them. Another species that we hope for is Audubon’s Shearwater and by working the weeds we found at least ten. Our best find, however, was a small flock of Red-necked Phalaropes that allowed us to creep up on them as they sat on the water giving us great looks. Further on we stopped by a buoy that had several Brown Boobies sitting on it; we had already had a great trip, and we hadn’t even reached the Tortugas yet! Finally we saw Fort Jefferson on the horizon and soon we were surrounded by Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies. Before we pulled up to Garden Key, we made a quick detour to Hospital Key where we saw over 50 Masked Boobies sitting on the shore.
After a delicious lunch, we piled out onto Garden Key and started looking for migrants. Though we had been experiencing depressingly mild weather, there were a surprising number of birds around. There seemed to be an American Redstart in every tree, Blackpoll Warblers were everywhere, and Palm Warblers littered the ground. Sitting by the famous fountain inside the fort we saw Northern Parula, and Yellow, Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Prairie, Black-and-white, and Kentucky warblers. Elsewhere on the grounds we tracked down Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, and Common Yellowthroat, not to mention such surprises as Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, and White-throated Sparrow. Bobolink, Blue Grosbeaks, and Indigo Buntings foraged on the lawn and Yellow-billed Cuckoos lurked in the trees. That evening, as the sun lowered and the temperatures fell, we got up on top of the fort to scan Bush Key. Though the task seemed impossible, we soon were able to pick out one immature Black Noddy roosting among the thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns. Its smaller size, whiter cap, and long thin bill all helped it stand out from the prodigious crowd. After snacks and refreshments several people took dinghy rides out to Bush and Long Keys to get up-close and personal looks at the terns and see the male frigatebirds displaying bright red balloon-like gular sacs, hoping to impress a mate. Nearby we could see females sitting at nests with big fluffy white chicks in them.
Early the next morning we were up and back in the fort. Carefully working our way through the parade grounds we were able to flush a Short-eared Owl. The birds found here in spring and summer are of the Caribbean subspecies sometimes known as Antillean Short-eared Owl or Arawak Owl. Shortly after we finished with our crippling scope views of the owl, an odd call note caught my ear and soon I was able to track down the culprit, a Bahama Mockingbird! We knew one had been reported, but it hadn’t been seen in two days. Needless to say, we were thrilled to find that it had decided to stick around. After a little bit of chasing it around, it finally settled down and allowed us to watch it forage in the open for a good 20 minutes! At times it was so close we could almost touch it! After that excitement, two pairs of Shiny Cowbirds were just icing on the cake.
All of this, and I didn’t even mention the fantastic sunsets, the great snorkeling, the delicious meals, the 400+ lb. goliath grouper, the schools of flyingfish, and the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. It’s no wonder this trip is so popular!