Friday, April 23, 2010

Florida: the Dry Tortugas

Arguably our Dry Tortugas day trip was everyones' favorite. Wikipedia offers a thorough write-up on the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson which I have linked here. There is something for visitors of many interests; history buffs, lighthouse counters, campers, snorklers and, of course, birders.

We took a 2-1/2 boat ride on the Atlantic Jefferson leaving Key West at 8:00 am and arrived at 10:30 am. On the way out the water became quite rough and choppy. While the boat was very stable overall, depending on the roughness of the water, especially upon reaching the open channel, there is definitely the possibility to become seasick.

We sat in the open bow and scanned the water for seabirds. We saw a couple of pods of dolphins surface briefly. Our first bird was a brown bird with long, pointed wings and a pointed body at both the head and the tail with white underside - Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster). Further out, our first terns flew by - Roseate Terns (Sterna dougallii).

The wind picked up and the water became rougher. I looked to my left and saw three songbirds battling by just off the portside. Seeing them made my stomach sink. They were so near, yet still so far. In open water we began to scan for Audubon's Shearwater (Puffinus lherminieri). We saw one - no, wait, it was a Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) flying low by the starboard side, its bouncing flight just above the water.

The water became rougher and the crew closed off the bow of the boat. In the cabin I was distracted by a couple of children who were seasick. Since I was queasy myself I quickly did my best to return my attention to the horizon. A large white and black bird flew by. I could see Bill and the other birders still outside with their bins up - Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra). I decided that it was better outside and rejoined the hardcore birders on the portside bench.

Finally, we neared the island. Sooty Terns (Onychoprion fuscatus), Brown and Masked boobies, Maginificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens), Brown Noddies (Anous stolidus) were now easily seen. As the boat approached the dock, we could see old wharf pylons each with a bird or two. Most were sleeping. Black-bellied Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola) seemed to occupy most of the pylons, but a few Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) and gulls also rested here.

Fort Jefferson is an interesting place. I'm not a war history buff, but apparently as the fort was being built with turrets for canons, technology changed for that kind of weaponry and the fort was obsolete before it could even be completed. From then on, at least one of the things it was used for was as a prison. In the photo above, just to the left of the Fort Jefferson sign, you can see a gangplank over the moat leading through an entry. Walking though this leads you to a large open space as in the photo below.

Would it be a cliche to write bird life exploded before our eyes? Yes, it would, but that's what happened. Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) clustered together at one end, swallows swooped over the grass, Merlins (Falco columbarius) perched high on leafless limbs of scattered trees, a Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) occupied a high perch on the fort's antenna, warblers flew low from one bush to another, several nighthawks were flying. Magnificent Frigatebirds soared overhead. Green Herons (Butorides virescens) flew across the open space. We were in a place that gives new meaning to the words migrant trap.

American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)

For four hours we birded the whole inside and outside of the fort to find every bird. Even then we missed some. The island is small and easy to bird, but we all would have enjoyed another hour or two. The birds in the photos below represent just a smattering of what we saw and what I was able to photograph.

Prairie Warbler (Dendroica discolor)

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina)

Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens)

Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)

Cape May Warbler (Dendroica tigrina)

Dreadful photo but it reminds me that we also saw Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) from the boat flying over open water.

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Ruddy Turnstones begging

Brown Noddy

Brown Noddies occupying pylons

Female Magnificent Frigatebird

A perched Common Nighthawk is a rare sight for me.

I guess I was surprised most by seeing birds that I don't think of as being all that migratory; a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon) and a Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). We really hoped the mockingbird would be a Bahama Mockingbird (Mimus gundlachii). No such luck for us, but when you think of it, a Bahama Mockingbird might be more likely in a place such as this.

Other species which I enjoyed seeing were a single Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) and a single Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius). We also saw thrushes, tanagers, and buntings.

When our four hours on the island was finished, we reluctantly boarded to Atlantic Jefferson to return to Key West. With birders on board, the boat's captain made a brief side trip to the Hospital Key to see breeding Masked Boobies close-up. The visit was short but we had great looks at this beautiful bird.

I saw five life birds and would recommend this day trip to any birder. We had the bonus of being there during neotropical migration. I'm sure that once migration is complete, the fort would be essentially birdless. But, the sea birds would be there and as their breeding season advanced the baby birds would add to their numbers. If I have counted correctly, in all we saw 44 species of birds. That doesn't sound like many but the island is small and, of those 44, we often saw many of one species. Just for example, there were possibly a couple hundred Palm Warblers, at one point there were six Indigo Buntings perched in one tree and finally there were three Merlins present. So where ever one went there were always birds to find.

This visit heightened my awareness and belief that songbird migration really is one of the wonders of the world.

Island Closed - seabirds nesting.

Coming next - Florida: a special bird in the Everglades.


Laurent said...

IT is a dream of mine to get there one day! Thansks for the post!

"Dr. Bob" said...

Have you ever thought about working as a tour agent? Your lovely Florida blogs make me just want to get up and go! Thanks so much for several nice stories! - "Dr. Bob"