Dry Tortugas Apr 30—May 03, 2008
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
A spring trip to Dry Tortugas National Park is a pilgrimage made by hundreds of North American birders every year. The Tortugas experience is truly unique, and can be downright magical. Most birders have heard the horror stories of the old days when 40 birders were packed into one boat that just had one room full of bunks and no showers, but believe me, we've come a long way since then. Our boat for this adventure is very comfortable. There are no more than four people in each of the four semi-private staterooms and there are two showers on board. Throw in three delicious hot meals per day and it is downright luxury compared to 10 years ago. And the reason that birders have always been willing to make this voyage? Well, for starters there are the four species that breed here and nowhere else in North America: Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Noddy, and Sooty Tern. Then you have the migrant birds that can pile in to these tiny little islands during inclement weather, often giving unusually good looks. And on top of that you have the chance for some pretty great rarities on every visit, and a pelagic trip thrown in to boot!
This year we had everything a birder expects from the Tortugas and more. The thousands of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies were an awesome spectacle as always. The constant din coming from the colony adjacent to our anchorage would periodically explode in volume as a Peregrine Falcon would go ripping through looking for an easy meal. And among the thousands of Brown Noddies we were able to pick out the proverbial needle in the haystack, a Black Noddy. They are just a bit smaller and just a bit darker, with a bill that's just a bit skinnier and longer, but after you've scrutinized 3,547 Brown Noddies, it pretty well jumps out at you! Almost every year at least one of these rarities is found here, and we were very pleased to have relatively quick success finding one this year.
The frigatebird colony is another highlight of this trip. We were able to get quite close to the birds, allowing us fantastic views of the gaudy males with their bright red gular pouches inflated to impress their mates. We also saw large gangly chicks still in the nests, and there was always a squadron of adults and immatures hanging over the fort. But this year the frigates were overshadowed by a smaller, browner bird perched in their midst, an immature Red-footed Booby! This species is only casual here and certainly not expected in any given year. Our close approach allowed us to see its orangey feet and the pink and blue tints to the bill and face. Joe, the ship's mate, did a great job of making sure we all got great looks as he ferried us in small groups by dinghy to see this fantastic rarity.
While we didn't experience any weather conducive to fallout, the migrant show was certainly no disappointment by any means. We saw 17 species of warblers and a very nice diversity of migrants in general. Standouts included Yellow-breasted Chat, a male Bay-breasted Warbler, great views of a perched Common Nighthawk, Black-whiskered Vireo, several Gray-cheeked Thrushes, and a very cooperative pair of Painted Buntings on our last morning that really put the icing on the cake. One species that isn't your typical migrant, but does usually show up each year, is "Antillean" Short-eared Owl. This subspecies of Short-eared Owl is restricted to the Greater Antilles, and we were lucky to get good looks at one just before we called off our search on Loggerhead Key.
The windy weather that we experienced throughout the trip made our pelagic birding a bit of a challenge, but we still managed to see several good birds and actually got rather good looks at a couple of them. While the distant flocks of phalaropes and scattered Audubon's Shearwaters and Roseate Terns really tested our abilities, our experiences with Bridled Tern and Pomarine Jaeger more than made up for it. Both species gave us great looks, sitting on the water near the boat and also flying around us at very close range. Brown Booby was also seen well, and Northern Gannets put on a remarkable show as they dove for their prey, hitting the water like missiles. Flying fish were constantly grabbing our attention as they shot out from under our boat and glided off to safety, and we saw at least eight loggerhead turtles on our return to Key West.
Our trip to the Dry Tortugas was everything we could have hoped for, and I'm already looking forward to my next visit to this unique destination.