Birds, Photography, Key West, Whatnot

Dry Tortugas Trip Report

Brown Boobies on a channel marker. A birding trip to the Dry Tortugas during the migration season can be hit or miss. But if it’s a miss, it’s a pretty nice miss – a ride across some of the world’s bluest ocean, a few birds you most likely won’t see anywhere else, a day amidst palm trees and historical semi-ruins. If there aren't any birds you can snorkel in a pristine aquatic wilderness.

The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife festival Dry Tortugas trip was a hit.

The first harbinger of a good birding day was the pair of Sooty Terns in Rebecca Channel. The Yankee Freedom was moving at about 30 knots, so it was a quick view, but most of the folks got decent looks at the birds.

The Masked Booby colony on Hospital Key.

Knowing that there were so many birders on the boat, Captain Rick steered a course as close as possible to Hospital Key, which is the only Masked Booby Colony in North America. The outer islands at the Dry Tortugas are primarily made of sand and periodically grow and shrink according to the whims of the ocean. Hospital Key seems to be in a shrinking phase. There were about 50 Masked Boobies on an island with about the square footage of a tennis court. When you think about it, this is the only bit of land some of these birds have ever been in contact with.

There was one booby floating in the ocean as we approached, and we had the chance to watch it take flight, working to get up out of the water, then slicing out, with the greatest of ease, over the ocean.

A Masked Booby taking flight.

There were also a number of Brown Boobies on the channel markers, and it should be noted that there is nothing that gives a bird guide pause like having to say “I’ve got a pair of immature Brown Boobies” on a boat full of non-birders. (The crew on the Yankee Freedom stylistically refers to them as “booby birds” to avoid this issue, something I intend to remember to do in the future.)

Omnipresent throughout the day were Magnificent Frigatebirds. There were about a hundred in the air at all times.

The group birding at Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo courtesy Dick Fortune &amp; Sara Lopez. See their great bird photography at <a href="">Through The Lens Gallery</a>.

The plan, when we got there, was to head across the drawbridge and into the fort, and to leave our stuff at the water fountain. And to work slowly around the perimeter, searching high and low for any birds we could find.

The plan went awry quickly, and not because the water fountain that’s been at the fort for decades seems to have disappeared.

We dropped our bags near the benches where the fountain used to be. Two hours later we hadn’t moved out of the immediate area of the benches. We just kept seeing new birds in the same trees. A lot of the birds you would expect – Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, Palm Warblers – but a lot of the birds you wouldn’t – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler, a Blackburnian Warbler, a small armada of Yellow Warblers. (Oddly we saw no Prairie Warblers.)

A Chestnut-sided Warbler.

A Blackburnian Warbler.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk flew overhead, then an American Kestrel. We saw a Gray-cheeked Thrush, then a slew of Swainson’s Thrushes.

After lunch we did manage a circuit around the parade ground. The oddest bird of the day was a Brown Thrasher – not exactly rare, but definitely not one of the usual suspects at the Tortugas. We also saw a Blue Grosbeak and a White-eyed Vireo that we studied for a time, trying to turn it into something more unusual.

We also made it over to the campground area for a brief time, where we had very good looks at a Swainson’s Warlber flipping over leaves in the shadows, looking for bugs.

A Sandwich Tern flying by the fort.

By the time the Yankee Freedom cast off for the trip home, we’d seen 55 species.

We'd seen a lot of birds during the day, but we knew were we weren’t being thorough. Getting back on the ferry knowing there were so many birds we probably missed was difficult

There was some consolation for the four or five of us spent most of the trip home riding on the bow. About ten miles from the fort the ferry’s path converged with that of a Pomarine Jaeger (light adult, nonbreeding plumage). The jeager flew in front of the boat for about about a hundred yards, then veered south in the general direction of Cuba.


The 2013 Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival Dry Tortugas Bird List for September 29, 2013

  1. Brown Pelican
  2. Magnificent Frigatebird
  3. Masked Booby
  4. Brown Booby
  5. Double-crested Cormorant
  6. Great Blue Heron
  7. Great Egret
  8. Cattle Egret
  9. Green Heron
  10. Sharp-shinned Hawk
  11. American Kestrel
  12. Merlin
  13. Peregrine Falcon
  14. Black-bellied Plover
  15. Willet
  16. Ruddy Turnstone
  17. Short-billed Dowitcher
  18. Pomarine Jaeger
  19. Laughing Gull
  20. Royal Tern
  21. Sandwich Tern
  22. Sooty Tern
  23. Eurasian Collared-dive
  24. Morning Dove
  25. Rock Dove
  26. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
  27. Eastern Kingbird
  28. Red-eyed Vireo
  29. White-eyed Vireo
  30. Barn Swallow
  31. Cliff Swallow
  32. Swainson’s Thrush
  33. Gray-cheeked Thrush
  34. Brown Thrasher
  35. Tennessee Warbler
  36. Orange-crowned Warbler
  37. Northern Parula
  38. Yellow Warbler
  39. Chestnut-sided Warbler
  40. Black-throated Blue Warbler
  41. Blackburnian Warbler
  42. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  43. Palm Warbler
  44. Yellow-throated Warbler
  45. Black-and-white Warbler
  46. American Redstart
  47. Northern Waterthrush
  48. Ovenbird
  49. Swainson’s Warbler
  50. Magnolia Warbler
  51. Hooded Warbler
  52. Summer Tanager
  53. Blue Grosbeak
  54. Orchard Oriole
  55. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  56. Empidonax Flycatcher (sp)