Dry Tortugas Apr 28—May 01, 2010
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
Our Dry Tortugas tour got off to a rough start this year. Unfortunately, due to the damage our charter boat sustained in bad weather on a trip previous to ours, we had to devise an alternate plan to get to the Tortugas. Instead of canceling the trip, we decided to take advantage of the excellent ferry service that brings visitors daily to this amazing and unique national park. Our plan was very successful, and the birding was fantastic—more than I could have hoped for.
After breakfast on the ferry, we quickly started seeing birds as we were leaving the harbor in Key West. There were Least Terns and Laughing Gulls all around, and a few of us got on the Roseate Terns that were perched on a channel marker as we sped past. Once out in open water, we started seeing a few Northern Gannets, and then we got into a small group of Bridled Terns. Bridled Terns are very similar to the Sooty Terns that nest by the thousands at the Tortugas, but they are almost never seen there—only on the crossing. The Bridled Terns weren't there for long, but we were able to make out their whitish tails and napes, and the gray tone to their backs contrasting with the blacker cap. As we approached the park, the boat slowed for us to get great looks at a Brown Booby perched on a buoy.
Once on Garden Key we quickly realized that there were a lot of birds around. Swallows were swirling about, Indigo Buntings and Blackpoll Warblers were zipping past, and there were Yellow-billed Cuckoos everywhere! At one point we were looking at a gumbo limbo tree that had at least 10 cuckoos in it, along with a host of warblers and vireos. By the end of the day we had tallied 17 species of warblers including Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Worm-eating, Ovenbird, Kentucky, and Hooded. We had amazing point-blank views at almost all of them. Other migrants we encountered included Eastern Wood-Pewee; Veery; Gray-cheeked, Swainson's, and Wood thrushes; Red-eyed and Black-whiskered vireos; Summer Tanager; Rose-breasted and Blue grosbeaks; Dickcissel; and Bobolink.
Of course the migrants aren't the only show at Dry Tortugas, and we took time to marvel at the clouds of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns constantly in the air over Bush Key. Hundreds of Brown Noddies covered the north coaling dock pilings like Christmas tree ornaments. Their frosty white caps looked as if they had been airbrushed on by an artist. Out on Long Key the Magnificent Frigatebird nest colony was in full swing, and we could see several males with their huge bright red gular pouches fully inflated in hopes of attracting a mate. Also in the snags out on Long Key we found at least 11 Peregrine Falcons waiting for their turn to strafe the tern colony for a meal.
On our return trip to Key West the captain of our ferry took us over close to Hospital Key where the Masked Boobies nest. There were well over 50 on the island and we saw several take flight, showing us all of their field marks. It was such a strange experience to drive up to this tiny little pile of sand in the middle of the ocean and see what must be the vast majority of the Masked Boobies currently in the ABA area. Later, as we continued on towards Key West, an adult Pomarine Jaeger flew right over the boat, giving us a very nice view.
The next two days were spent birding Key West and the Lower Keys. We were able to find many birds that we didn't see at the Tortugas and get better looks at a few others. On Big Pine Key we found the distinctively diminutive Key deer tamely munching grass on the side of the road. We added birds like Broad-winged Hawk, Common Ground-Dove, Chimney Swift, the Keys race of White-eyed Vireo, Fish Crows of the oddly out of place Stock Island colony, the newly countable Common Myna, and a stunning Blackburnian Warbler. We got better looks at Bobolink, and we had fantastic scope views of Roseate Terns sitting with Least and Sandwich terns for comparison.