Dry Tortugas Apr 22—25, 2013

Posted by Michael O'Brien

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Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is a freelance artist, author, and environmental consultant living in Cape May, New Jersey. He has a passionate interest in bird vocalizations and field ide...

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The Dry Tortugas is always an exciting place to bird because you never know what surprises will greet you. These remote islands in the Gulf of Mexico serve as a magnet for migratory birds passing from Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula to points north. Our late April visit was as interesting as always, and was made particularly enjoyable due to the friendly and accommodating crew of the Playmate.

Sooty Tern

Sooty Tern— Photo: Michael O’Brien

Sailing from Key West, we passed the edge of the Florida Current, which feeds warm Gulf of Mexico water into the Gulf Stream. Although seabirds were scarce on our crossing, we did have splendid views of two Bridled Terns, which passed right by the bow. We also had a brief encounter with a Pomarine Jaeger, and had our first views of Sooty Tern, Magnificent Frigatebird, and Brown Booby. As we approached the Tortugas, a swing by Hospital Key got us fairly close to the thriving colony of Masked Boobies that nest there.

While at the Tortugas, we spent the majority of our time exploring Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. This is the most vegetated island, and the only one with fresh water. Although the water fountain there was in disrepair, the makeshift birdbath, replenished by visitors, was still a critical resource for migratory birds, which all seemed to pass through that spot at some point during the day. Whenever we stationed ourselves by the water, we would see something different, although an Ovenbird with a single tail feather always seemed to be present. The diversity of migrants we found at the Tortugas included raptors, swallows, vireos, thrushes, buntings, and orioles, but warblers were the real highlight. We found eighteen species of warblers on our short visit, many of them offering very close views. Birds seemed particularly confiding around the campground where we had dazzling views of Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Yellow-throated, and Wilson’s warblers (the latter a local rarity). Numbers of individuals were not high, but the diversity was excellent and it seemed like every tree had something moving. Rivaling the warblers for our attention were tanagers; we didn’t see many, but that male Scarlet Tanager near the campground was possibly the brightest one I’ve ever seen! And the views we had were just breathtaking!

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager— Photo: Michael O’Brien

What was perhaps most memorable about the Dry Tortugas was the seabird colony. Upon arriving at the Tortugas, it is difficult not to feel as if one has been transported to another world. From a distance, the mass of birds over Bush Key looked like a swarm of mosquitoes, so it’s easy to believe that the number of birds occupying this colony includes 30,000+ pairs of Sooty Terns and 4,000+ pairs of Brown Noddies. This seething mass of birds was absolutely mesmerizing, and they were always there! Whether we were taking “frigate runs” right by the colony, or walking around Fort Jefferson, or anchored for the night and watching the sun set from on deck, the terns were flying, calling, chasing one another, chasing intruding Peregrines, skimming the water to drink, some heading offshore, and some heading back in. They never stopped! And having an abundance of Magnificent Frigatebirds hanging over Long Key, and constantly sailing overhead, occasionally with pouches inflated, was also a treat and added to the unique ambiance of this special place.

Thanks to Captain Joe, first mate Adam, and chef Jenny. They kept us safe, comfortable, and well-fed throughout our trip.