The Dry Tortugas is a group of islands 70 miles off of Key West that hold many birds that nest nowhere else in North America. It is also a great spot for West Indian vagrants as Havanna, Cuba is a clear and close shot from the Tortugas. Read more about the Dry Tortugas.
Definitely one of the most incredible birding days of my life! Our day started early and by 8 we were out of Key West headed SW. The boat ride was nice, with the clear blue water under us, dolphins playing in the surf and the occasional Royal Tern or Gannet passing by.
After a couple hours, the fort came into view and I added 3 new birds in quick succession. As we passed by Hospital Key, I spied more than 30 Masked Boobies sitting on their nests, a Sooty Tern flew by, and a Brown Noddy was sitting on a buoy. This all without ever leaving the boat! When we docked you can imagine how anxious I was to get off and see what else I could find.
When we docked I located several Magnificent Frigatebirds floating overhead.
Several Ruddy Turnstones were squabbling over a piece of bread. The Ruddies were very tame and allowed close study throughout the trip. I met a birder, named Mitchell out front and would later befriend his wonderful family as well. I spent most of the day birding with him. I always enjoy being with older, more experienced birders and learning from them. He directed me towards the campground where I found a slew of migrants including Black-and-White Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Hooded Warbler.
I then raced off into the fort and was in awe by how many different species I saw at one time. Barn, Rough-winged Swallows, and Purple Martins danced in the fields, Ruby-throated Hummers defended prime flowers, Cattle Egrets hunted insects in the grass while Gray and Eastern Kingbirds went for them in the air, and migrants were EVERYWHERE! Mitchell and I noticed a flycatcher, calling very weird. I didn’t recognize it at all but think it was possible that it was either a Cuban Pewee or a Western fly of some sort. However, before we could ID it, a Merlin swept into the flycatchers tree and abruptly it stopped singing. Perhaps lunch for the Merlin-?
As we continued our loop, a Peregrine Falcon coursed over the fort and the racket the Sooty Terns were making on Bush Key only got louder. As Mitchell was camping at the Tortugas, I remember his daughter, Harper pointing to the terns and seeing, “See those terns? They call all night!” And their calls, “wide awake, wide awake” fit that perfectly. While we walked we stopped suddenly and noticed an Upland Sandpiper just 10 feet from us!!! He didn’t move but instead bobbed his head perhaps indicating we were too close. The migrants here let you get incredibly close, a pattern that continued throughout the day, just as described in the books!!
We broke for lunch and then found ourselves back in the fort. I located a vireo calling in a tree and it was no other than my first Black-whiskered Vireo, for some reason a bird that I’ve always really wanted to see. And in a tree nearby, a Yellow-throated Vireo.
My father and I took a walk around the very top of the fort which provided great looks at the surrounding land and water below.
We then walked over to the coaling docks where we got terrific looks at Brown Noddies. I scoured them for Black to no avail.
After some time with the Noddies, we continued scouring the fort for migrants getting great looks at all sort of birds like Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. As it was almost time to board, I checked the campground one last time and added Prairie and Yellow-throated Warbler to the day’s list.
As we boarded, Mitchell and I scanned with our scopes and located a Brown Booby, another new bird for me. We asked the captain to sail the boat close to Hospital Key to get a better look at the Masked Boobies. He agreed and on the way we passed by Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies and came within feet of a Brown Booby sitting on a channel marker. We got terrific looks at the Masked Boobies and their chicks before taking off.
Mitchell and I seawatched on the ride back and just as I was dozing off he yelled, “Alex, Alex, Bridled Tern!” It was indeed a Bridled Tern, right of the front of the boat. There was a marked difference from the Sooties as this bird’s back was brownish gray instead of black. Wow! I knew this bird was possible but was unsure I’d actually see it! Two Northern Gannets cruised over the boat, one an adult. We arrived back into port safely.
On the walk back to the hotel, I located a Red Junglefowl, sitting on a fence. The Junglefowl has been established on Key West for awhile now, though it is not yet ABA-Countable. To read more about Key West’s population, click here.
Overall, an absolutely incredible day with many surprises. Stay tuned……..