Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dry Tortugas

We checked in at the Yankee Freedom II at 7 AM for our 8 AM departure. They let us on the boat about 7:30 and we had a continental breakfast before the boat headed out of the Key West harbor. Deb, the naturalist and "color" commentator along with the boat captain, had told us when asked that no roseate terns had been seen yet this year. But on our way out we saw several--they had literally come in with the wind the night before. This boded well for our full day tour to the Dry Tortugas.

For those who know nothing about the Dry Tortugas, it is a group of small islands/keys that lie 68 miles west of Key West. For birders they are a special place to bird, especially in the spring during migration. Deb was telling us all on the way out (a 2 hour ride) that yesterday was a really good day at Fort Jefferson. The fort was built in the mid 1800's as part of the defense of the southern flank of our country. Among its odd claims to fame, it was once the largest structure made from bricks in the US, and it was the prison for Dr. Mudd who tended to a wounded John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. Today the fort is part of Dry Tortugas National Park.

On our way out today--a coolish, overcast day that threatened rain most of the day, and sprinkled at times--we also saw bridled terns and brown boobies (new year birds), 1 of which was sitting on a channel buoy (see top photo above). At Garden Key, the small piece of land that is almost totally covered by the fort, the birding was in fact quite good. There were many yellow-billed cuckoos flying among the trees inside the fort. 13 warbler species were found including the palm warbler in the bottom picture above. A magnolia warbler also showed up which was a new year bird.

Soon after entering the fort, I saw 2 kingbirds that did not at first look like gray kingbirds, possibly because of the overcast conditions, and they were definitely not eastern kingbirds. This led to some short lived excitement that they might be the very rarely seen loggerhead kingbird. In case that was true, the leader of the VENT group (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) was brought over who told us that it was in fact a gray kingbird. The initial excitement disappeared to be replaced with the general fun of being at Fort Jefferson and seeing lots of migrating birds. My friend found a bird she did not know which turned out to be a dickcissel, another new bird for the year.

The primary reason birders want to visit the Dry Tortugas is to see the 1000's of sooty, and brown noddy terns that nest on Bush Key which is right next to Garden Key. There is also a nice sized colony of magnificent frigatebirds that nest here. If you are really lucky 1 or 2 black noddy terns will be found mixed in with the browns, but this year none of the black species has been seen so far. You also will see the masked booby, and bridled and roseate terns traveling out and back. Another seabird that we saw coming back to Key West today was the pomarine jeager (a new year bird).

We arrived back in Key West about 5:30 PM after a most enjoyable day. Since this is Thursday, another full week of birding is in the books. 27 more birds were added to this week's list, 9 of which were new birds for the year. The YTD total is now up to 519. Tomorrow my friend and I will bird in Key West a bit more and then slowly bird our way back up thru the keys to Miami. Stay tuned!

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