Dry Tortugas May 01—04, 2013
Posted by Brennan Mulrooney
This Dry Tortugas tour was blessed with bad weather. Now this may sound odd at first, but when you’re birding on a remote island, in the heat of migration, bad weather is exactly what you want, if you want to see birds. We arrived at Dry Tortugas National Park just as a serious thunderstorm was sweeping across the islands. The rain was falling so hard that it totally obscured our view of Fort Jefferson, which was only a few hundred yards away. It was all our captain could do to simply hold us in position in the channel leading to Garden Key. The wind was howling, and with such limited visibility it wouldn’t be safe to approach the anchorage. When the weather finally cleared, we could see that this had been the right call, as several boats had pulled free of their moorings and drifted into each other. Now it was safe to pull in and we quickly unloaded, anxious to see what the storm may have brought in. We weren’t to be disappointed.
Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park— Photo: Brennan Mulrooney
The Dry Tortugas in spring is always worth the trip. Even if migration is slow, the breeding birds are spectacular. Four species that breed here do so nowhere else in the U.S.: Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigatebird, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy. In addition, Brown Booby and Bridled Tern are regularly seen on trips to the Tortugas, regardless of the whims of migration. While the thought of some guaranteed lifers excites any birder, there is something even more special about the thought of witnessing a fallout. So when we saw the weather we were going to have, it was difficult not to be excited. As soon as we got inside the fort, it was obvious that we were going to have a great time. There were Veeries and Gray-cheeked Thrushes scattered about in all directions on the grass. Yellow-billed Cuckoos were flying from tree to tree, looking for a place to hide. Warblers were everywhere: 5, 10, 20 in every tree. We would find 18 species of warblers on this first afternoon! Male Scarlet Tanagers elicited audible gasps as they glowed on exposed branches. Merlins and Peregrine Falcons were almost always in view, wreaking havoc as they strafed the parade grounds and the tern colony outside. That evening we returned to the boat for showers, cocktails, and a delicious meal, all the while enjoying a terrific sunset and a terrific show from the thousands of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies at their nest colony just a few hundred feet away.
The next day began with another passing shower that brought in a few new birds, but they would have to wait, because just as the captain was about to pull anchor and head for the dock, I spotted a Black Noddy sitting in the colony right next to shore. There hadn’t been any Black Noddies reported at the Tortugas this year, so this was a very exciting and unexpected surprise. Watching the bird through the scope from a boat proved to be a bit of a trick, but we all got satisfying views of this sharply marked little noddy. Back on the island we found the land bird activity to still be quite good and we added a few new species to our already impressive list. A gorgeous male Black-throated Green Warbler provided great views. A flock of about 25 Eastern Kingbirds was a fun surprise. A perched Antillean Nighthawk allowed close studies, which we appreciated when we found a perched Common Nighthawk the next day. We added Purple Martin and Cliff, Bank, and Northern Rough-winged swallows to the Barn Swallows we’d seen the day before. All of a sudden there were Swainson’s Thrushes in the thrush flock that were not there before. A very nervous White-crowned Pigeon had us running all over the fort trying to get good views, which we finally managed as we found it lurking in the middle of a Gumbo Limbo tree. Then suddenly the excitement got kicked up a notch. As I was scanning through the swallows, hoping for something new, I came across something entirely different, an adult WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD—which is what I screamed to the group as the bird was quickly flying out of view. On my orders the group sprinted back and forth, trying to keep the bird in view as it was disappearing behind the taller projections of the fort’s roof. Luckily for us, the bird made a couple of circles before flying off out of sight. Long ago, this species was somewhat regular at the Tortugas, but in the last 20 years or so it has only been seen very sporadically. This was my first in over 10 visits to the park since 2003. On this day we also took a quick trip over to Hospital Key where we enjoyed closer views of the Masked Booby colony there.
Our last morning began with a brief last visit to the fort before our return voyage. We saw more American Redstarts, Black-throated Blue Warblers, Northern Waterthrushes, and others in the trees in the fort. We again enjoyed views of Roseate Terns among the Sandwich Terns on the coaling docks. And then we bid farewell to Fort Jefferson and began our trip back to Key West. Along the way we saw Atlantic Sailfish, many flying fish, copulating Green Turtles, migrating nighthawks, and much more. The sea conditions were much better than advertised, and it was a fantastic way to end a memorable visit to Dry Tortugas National Park.