Dry Tortugas Apr 29—May 02, 2015

Posted by Rafael Galvez


Rafael Galvez

Rafael Galvez has been birding and illustrating birds since childhood, a dual passion that developed when his family moved from Peru to South Florida. Always with a sketchp...

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Sometimes, the weather and bird migration come head to head in such a way that we are kept at the edge of our seats until the last moments of daybreak, sensing that an unforgettable experience could be in store. Such was the case on the eve of our departure towards the Dry Tortugas, after a tropical storm system pounded the Lower Keys with gale force winds and much rain in a manner that undoubtedly influenced our trip. The ingredients for an adventure were literally in the air. Not only were we expecting to encounter many birds in the archipelago, but also hoping for the weather to dissipate enough to grant us a smooth journey westward into the Gulf of Mexico.
A combination of opportune timing and the right amount of precipitation allowed us to see many birds in the Dry Tortugas and in Key West, and gave us enough of a sporty boat ride to make the tour memorable. We saw more thrushes than typically expected during spring migration in the region, and a good representation of trans-gulf migrants aided, no doubt, by the recent storms out of the southwest. The weather had brought more Bobolinks, Dickcissels, and tanagers than usual into the area. Sharing time in the cozy atmosphere of the MV Playmate, accompanied by a great group of adventurers and a friendly crew, we indulged in great food concocted by our chef, Jen, and enjoyed the beauty of the Dry Tortugas as it spanned from its aquamarine daylight colors through the golden glow of the afternoon.

Black-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo— Photo: Mark Hedden


Our first morning’s departure out of Key West had been in doubt since the previous day’s storm had dumped up to five inches of rain through the Lower Keys. Cautiously, our boat crew attempted to take us to the Tortugas as scheduled, but not far out into our westward course, we were forced to turn back. Rougher weather than hoped for did not contribute favorably to this exercise. Back in Key West, we wasted no time and headed out to migrant traps, certain that we would find many birds recently arrived from their migratory journeys. A Bahama Mockingbird that had been recently seen in the Key West Botanical Gardens took us to that location to check out the scene. Dozens of birders were there, but none had seen the bird for a couple of days. Instead we headed over to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. The hardwood hammocks surrounding the fort are excellent stopover habitat for migrating birds. Right away, we were treated to great sightings. A fruiting Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) near the parking lot had many birds, among them a Black-billed Cuckoo, an excellent species for the region, rarely seen in Key West, giving us great views as it indulged in caterpillars gleaned from the large glossy leaves. For most participants, which had continued onto the Dry Tortugas Extension from the South Florida and Keys tour, this marked the third cuckoo species shared during our time together. What an excellent find for the Keys! Great spotting Sharon!

Immediately as we entered the park’s trails, we noticed that there were many thrushes within the hammock. It was not unusual to have four or five within a single binocular view, most of which were Gray-cheeked Thrushes. There were also some Veeries and at least one Swainson’s Thrush. By contrast, typically Swainson’s is our most common thrush species in South Florida during migration. The park also granted us great views of a number of warblers, among them many Blackpolls, Cape Mays, American Redstarts, Prothonotary, Black-and-white, and Black-throated Blue warblers. Indigo Buntings were everywhere, accompanied by a spatter of Rose-breasted and Blue grosbeaks.

Gray-cheeked Thrush

Gray-cheeked Thrush— Photo: Mark Hedden


As we made our way through the park, charismatic Gray Kingbirds darted to and from high perches, at times shadowed by their smaller relatives, migrating Easterns. A strand of native Blackbeads (Pithecellobium keyense) and Jamaica Dogwoods (Piscidia piscipula) beyond the coastal fields treated us to flocks of Bobolinks and Dickcissels, species that typically migrate in significant numbers throughout the Keys, but are seldom seen in such high numbers.

We continued from Fort Zach to Indigenous Park by Higgs Beach. Unlike prior days, which had been characterized by clear skies dictated by an unusually dry spring season in South Florida, we birded under a thick mat of gray clouds that gave us shelter from the sun. While we thought we had encountered many birds at the Fort, we would soon learn there would be many more birds at Indigenous. Quickly we found a group of budding Gumbo Limbos (Busera simaruba) heaping with birds. While Blackpolls and Cape Mays continued to be the bread and butter, Blackburnians and Black-throated Greens were wonderful to see. Among them were also Prairie, Black-and-white, and many Western Palm warblers. We would see 21 warbler species during this trip! Summer and Scarlet tanagers were well-represented, and thrushes continued to dominate the leafy understories. Brief stops along the beach gave us Royal, Sandwich, and Least terns.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting— Photo: Mark Hedden


Driving along a few locations in Key West added the first of many Peregrine Falcons—a species that migrates in higher numbers through the Keys than anywhere else on the planet. We also had various views of the endangered White-crowned Pigeon, a beautiful Caribbean forest fruit-eater that can be elusive and wary of people.

At last, during our second morning we left for the Dry Tortugas while most participants slept in their bunks. The seas had significantly eased, finally granting us a safe passage westward, 70 miles from Key West towards the archipelago. As we approached the deeper Rebecca Shoal channel, we started encountering the first of our pelagic bird species, a group of four Roseate Terns on the wing. As we continued on, some of us started getting views of birds such as young Northern Gannet, Bridled Terns, and Audubon’s Shearwaters.

By late morning, the edifice of Fort Jefferson was visible in the distance, as if it had been built directly over the water. As we circled Garden Key to land on the dock, Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies poured from the adjacent Bush Key, flying back and forth on feeding ventures. Dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds hung effortlessly in the sky, visible mostly over Long Key. The Dry Tortugas hosts the sole nesting sites in North America for these three species!

Audubon's Shearwaters

Audubon’s Shearwaters— Photo: Mark Hedden


Having seen so many birds in Key West, we could not wait to get into Fort Jefferson’s parade grounds to see what species foraged within. Once again, we found many thrushes on the leafy floor. The predominant species was Gray-cheecked, but Veery and Swainson’s were also represented, and a Wood Thrush here and there completed our set of four. We started noticing that the Seagrapes that still had flowers were very popular with the birds. At times a dozen Ruby-throated Hummingbirds gleaned and skirmished within a single tree. Warblers would come into view in waves, and it was soon evident that the species composition at any given tree would not remain static. Several minutes at one location would reveal new arrivals, either from elsewhere in the key or from recent flights into the archipelago. A number of birds seemed quite tired; some would unfortunately not make it out of the Tortugas. Warbler species during our first day in Garden Key included Bay-breasted, Magnolia, Cape May, Blackburnian, and most of the species we had found in Key West. Time and again we were treated to extremely close visitations by an Ovenbird or a thrush, disinterested in our presence and busily foraging between our feet. Examination of fruiting Gumbo Limbos seemed like a perfect place for a Black-whiskered Vireo, and before long, one was found feeding at mid-canopy; everyone got great looks. A single Lincoln’s Sparrow darted in and out of the understory. A Sora darted between members of our group and plunged into dense foliage. All the while, Bobolinks and Dickcissels came and went to nearby grassy patches. Merlins circled the parade ground; one was seen with a Bobolink in its talons.

Black-whiskered Vireo

Black-whiskered Vireo— Photo: Mark Hedden


We continued on to the perimeter of the key, checking the campgrounds, the coaling docks, and the strand of shrubs on the north side of the island. Here we found gems, including Hooded and Kentucky warblers, bright red male Scarlet Tanagers, and very close views of innumerable Brown Noddies, with their frosted crowns.

It was clear there were a number of nighthawks on the key, since we spooked a few of them from their daytime perches as we craned our necks for songbirds. The scrutiny was on for Antillean Nighthawks among the Common. And indeed, one was found and photographed by one of our participants.

That afternoon, as the sun began to set, we made runs on the dinghy along Bush Key towards Long Key. As we cruised the aquamarine waters, Sooties and Noddies swerved by the hundreds past our boat. We stopped at the frigatebird rookery to watch the gigantic Magnificents play in the gentle air. Several Peregrine Falcons could be seen coming to roost on petrified mangrove snags. What a wonderful way to finish a splendid day, surrounded by thousands of birds below the fiery sky. Dinner was wonderful in the shared atmosphere of the boat’s dining cabin. As darkness took hold, the “wide awake” calls of thousands of Sooty Terns peppered the tropical air.

Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies

Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies— Photo: Mark Hedden


Our second morning in Garden Key was our last. As was expected, we found a number of different birds within the fort grounds. Migratory flights in and out of the Tortugas are often evident throughout the day, with birds sometimes changing within hours. New birds that were added this morning included Worm-eating, Yellow, and Black-throated Green warblers. A single White-throated Sparrow seemed out of place within the parade ground. A Chuck-will’s-widow was discovered resting on the ground, granting us all great looks.

As we left the archipelago during the late morning, we finally swung by Hospital Key, the only breeding grounds for Masked Boobies in North America, to take a look at the dozens of sulids resting on the small sand island. During our return trip back to Key West, we encountered winds shifting suddenly out of the east. While the seas were once again sporty, we were treated to close encounters with several Audubon’s Shearwaters, Bridled Terns, and some frigatebirds, Brown Boobies, and Roseate Terns resting on ocean markers.

Sunset behind Fort Jefferson

Sunset behind Fort Jefferson— Photo: Mark Hedden




 As we finally arrived at Key West, the sun gave us a final show, splaying bands of color—gold, orange, and purple—over the island city. Our adventure was over, and despite some challenges due to the weather, the MV Playmate’s crew did a fantastic job at keeping us safe and excellently fed. We are grateful to them and to Mark Hedden for agreeing to join us last minute and helping us get on some great birds, and sharing his wonderful photos. Happy adventures to all!