This Florida Post is going to be about my day birding in Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas are a collection of seven small islands and some coral reefs. They are about 70 miles west of Key West, the southernmost of the Florida Keys. Accessible only by seaplane or boat, on April 29, we took the Yankee Freedom ferry across open ocean to the Tortugas and docked at Garden Key which is home to Fort Jefferson, built in the 19th Century and abandoned now. The Tortugas are very popular with snorkelers and of course birders primarily as a migrant trap and for seabirds. On this visit migrants were relatively few but seabirds were plentiful, and despite rougher than normal seas, it was a great visit.
I had visited the Tortugas early in my birding days – exactly 39 years to the day prior to this visit. I did not keep detailed notes in those days, but saw many of the specialty birds at that time. Back then, photography was not part of my birding life so I had looked forward to this trip to relive old times, to see familiar and hopefully new birds and to take lots of photos to move closer to goals of 700 species seen in the ABA Area and to get photos of at least 600 of those species seen. Prior to leaving for Florida, my totals stood at about 675 and 530 respectively, so there was much work to do. This voyage was expected to help a lot.
Key West is a bustling, crowded tourist and beach town with some beautiful older sections and too many new and to me mostly tacky areas. It was good to leave and to immediately be on the alert for birds. Nothing extraordinary on the way out past hundreds of boats and some very expensive homes.
Key West Marina
A “Nice” Key West Home
Initial seabirds were limited to some Double Crested Cormorants, Least and Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls and Magnificent Frigatebirds. They all had been seen earlier on this Florida trip and the latter was a new ABA Life Bird and new ABA Photo. Actually I am sure I had seen them on my earlier visit to South Florida, the Keys and Tortugas in 1978, but I had not recorded that. I took some photos including of a flock of birds on the seawall across from the ferry as we left and only later discovered that there were several Black Skimmers in the group. This was the only time they were seen and my photo was the only record. A little further out but still within Key West, more terns flew by. I thought they might be Roseate Terns but they were all Sandwich Terns. Once hitting open waters, we hoped for Shearwaters, but for the entirety of the crossing, it was only a few birds here and there – all the same species seen on departure.
Black Skimmers and Royal Terns
Things changed dramatically, however, once we neared the Dry Tortugas themselves – with Fort Jefferson a landmark in the distance.
First View of Fort Jefferson
At first we saw a few Sooty and Noddy Terns and more Sandwich Terns flying by, and then as we passed by tiny little Hospital Key, we saw some larger white birds with black wing tips, on the sand and in the air. These were Masked Boobies. I had seen some on my 1978 visit but again no photo and since I had heard that they were pretty scarce and distant, I had hoped for but not expected a photo this time. One guide said that this was the closest the ferry had come to them in his experience. There were 50+ Boobies and photos were ok.
Masked Boobies on Hospital Key
Masked Boobies in Flight
Sooty and Noddy Terns nest on Bush Key immediately adjacent to Garden Key and they are present in the thousands – I heard there might be as many as approaching 100,000 altogether. As we got closer to our landing dock, they started showing up in greater and greater numbers. As we were pulling in to the dock, a number of small white birds with very long tails flashed by. In my (our?) excitement and inexperience, I thought they might be Tropicbirds because of the long tails. A single Tropicbird would have been possible but extraordinary. These were Roseate Terns – one of my most sought after species. I had seen a single bird at the Pine Point Beach Jetty in Maine in 2015, but it had been a terrible view at great distance and certainly no photo. My photos taken as we docked were “good enough” and certainly showed that the birds were not Tropicbirds. There would be much better views later as there were more Roseate Terns than usual.
Thousands of Terns at Bush Key
Roseate Terns as We Docked (Sadly Not Tropicbirds)
We arrived at the island at around 10:30 a.m. and the ferry would leave at 2:30 p.m. It hardly seemed like enough time, and I wanted to go everywhere at once. Garden Key is small, and birding is mostly in the Fort or just outside of it at the north and south coaling docks or looking out to the tern colonies and open sea. In April and early May, the hope is that large numbers of very tired migrating birds will have “fallen out” of their migratory path and arrived exhausted at this speck of land to rest up and then continue their journey north. It is possible to see hundreds of such birds in the few trees within the Fort, coming to the single fountain or even on the ground, too tired to fly or hide. We did not have such a “fall out” so our search for migrants focused on the few trees and the fountain. Although some seabirds might fly by just once and thus be missed if you were not watching specifically for them, the odds were that most would be around longer and seen at many times.
Welcome to the Tortugas
After a few moments taking photos of the abundant Sooty, Sandwich and Brown Noddy Terns, I headed into the Fort hoping for tired birds everywhere. As I said, such was not the case, so after a quick walk around, I concentrated attention at the fountain and adjacent trees.
Brown Noddy Tern
I will spare you a blow by blow, minute by minute, chronological accounting. Birds came to the fountain and stayed – or left- and returned – or did not. Sometimes they would disappear into the trees and then return or sometimes they would just disappear. Other birds came in and we wondered from where as we had not seen any fly in from outside or above. All were welcome, and although there were no new ABA Life birds, good light and good proximity provided many photo opportunities – including new ones for my Life Photo list.
Birds at the Fountain and Environs
Scarlet and Summer Tanagers and Indigo Bunting
Northern Parulas and Palm Warbler
Northern Parula Warbler
Scarlet Tanager Male
Scarlet Tanager Female
Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler and Blue Grosbeak Female
While the show at the fountain was rewarding, after a while it was time to do a seabird watch and hopefully get some good photos. As will probably be stated several times in my Florida blog posts, one of the big surprises was that only a single gull species was recorded. There were Laughing Gulls in many locations but no others. Such was not the case for terns, especially here at the Tortugas. I wanted photos of many of the tern specialties but there were only two two Lifer possibilities: Bridled Tern and Black Noddy Tern. The former was a reasonable probability but the latter was a remote chance. Among the thousands of Brown Noddy Terns, one would be fortunate to find even a single Black Noddy Tern. Individuals had been seen recently, but not on the majority of trips. I ran into Washington Birder Randy Knapp at the Fort. He had been out two days earlier and had seen a Black Noddy at the north coaling station later in the day and it was visible only by scope from atop the Fort looking down on the dock wall. I was hopeful but not optimistic. Good photos of the other possible terns were there for the taking, and I was really hoping and optimistic about finding a Bridled Tern. Long visits to both the South and North coaling Docks provided photos of the more common terns but no Black Noddies or Bridled Terns were found.
My favorite photo is the one below which shows a Royal Tern at the top of the piling and then from left to right below a Brown Noddy Tern, a Sandwich Tern and two Roseate Terns.
Brown Noddy Tern
Roseate Terns (Can you tell that there are three?)
As the title to this blog states – “One Good Tern Deserves Another and Another and Another”. I doubt there are many places in the U.S. where you can find 4 tern species on a single piling. But wait there is more – flying in the vicinity of this piling were numerous Sooty Terns and Least Terns (the Another and Another add-ons to the title). If there had been more space on the piling, maybe five or even six species might have been in the photo.
Back to the other possibilities. The photos of the Brown Noddy, Roseate and Sooty Terns were new, but I really was hoping for a lifer as well. One of the nice things about birding in a group is that there are many eyes and observations can be shared. Some of the best eyes in our group belonged to Tom Keegan, a relatively new but excellent birder from Idaho. Especially in denser foliage, Tom was often the first to actually see a bird. He had found some Bridled Terns at the North Coaling Station. I was just leaving the South Coaling Station and saw him walking briskly my way. He had come to tell me that some Bridled Terns had come in and I rushed over to find Randy on them with his scope. That provided a lifer view and with some maneuvering I was able to get some decent photos even though they were quite distant. I found Frank Caruso and he got to them and thus added ABA Life Bird #699!!
This was now tern species #7 for the trip – #8 if you counted the Black Skimmers. And others were at least possible. In addition to the very rare Black Noddy Tern, other possibilities are Common, Black, Elegant, Caspian, Forster’s and Arctic Terns. All are found in Florida and I think even at the Tortugas. I have seen and have photos of all of those (except the Black Noddy) as they can all be found in Washington unlike any of the others.
Back to the Fountain hoping that more birds may have come in. Nothing new but somehow the Palm Warblers seemed to have multiplied and there were as many as 8 seen at the same time. The dearth of warblers was probably the biggest disappointment on the trip. As many as 20 species was possible and we had fewer than 10 on this visit. A Worm Eating Warbler had been seen by others but missed by me. It would have been a new photo but not a life bird. So back outside and now those additional eyes paid off again. Maybe not quite as keen-eyed as her husband Tom, but still very very good, Beth Waterbury found the bird of the trip – a perched and very visible Antillean Nighthawk. We had missed them at the Key West Airport the night before where we might have heard one and seen its profile in the darkness. But in the heavy wind that night, neither was a real possibility. So this was not only a great find for “ticking” a new ABA Lifer but OMG it was very easy to see and photograph. Best yet it was ABA #700 for Frank and there were high fives all around.
It was now getting late and our last efforts were to look down on the Coaling Dock from atop the Fort hoping that the Black Noddy would return to what was apparently a favored roosting spot. It was so windy that there was concern that we could be blown off the Fort. More realistically, the wind made it very hard to stabilize the spotting scope that Tom used diligently in the search. We tried for about 30 minutes and then it was time to get back on the boat and return to Key West. We had been told that the crossing would be “even rougher” on the way back. There was still hopes that an Audubon’s Shearwater might fly by the boat. The passage was indeed quite bouncy which made viewing anything more difficult. In fact there were several falls and near falls. No shearwaters were seen. My only other open ocean (pelagic) birding trips have been on smaller boats devoted to bird watching. On those trips, birds were chased or chummed in. This was a “get there and return” trip only so no efforts to find or follow birds. I wonder if shearwaters would have been found on a pure birding trip. Here it would just be luck and we had none. A single shearwater had been seen on a trip earlier in the week. Maybe some day I will get one on a pelagic trip in Florida or North Carolina. Some day…
Two life birds and lots of good pictures – an excellent trip. Unlikely that I will make that trip again and definitely no way that another 39 years will pass until the next time.
And just because, I am adding this photo of our party when we returned to Key West – well not really!!