Archive for February, 2012

Slight front out of SW blows in killdeer, barn swallows

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Hi everyone, I hope those of you visiting in the Lower Keys this week are taking advantage of the warmer weather, and consequently, smoother days on the water.  The last week has given the Yankee Freedom II several very calm, clear days en route to the Dry Tortugas. Hopefully, we will start to see more and more of these days on a weekly basis.

Between the 17th and 18th of February, however, a slight front from the south moved across the Tortugas, slightly cooling the temperatures, and bringing with it some new avian visitors to Garden Key. I got a good look at a lone killdeer wading along the brick rubble on the eastern side of the Fort, and saw a pair of barn swallows flitting in front of the sally port for several minutes as well.  Neither species seemed to stay long, as I did not see them again over the next few days.

Lone killdeer seen on the eastern side of the Fort after the southern front. I only observed it for one day.

The sooty terns and brown noddies have now completely overtaken Bush Key, which gives some eager birders ample opportunities to check two unique species off their life lists.  Many of both species can now be seen settling on the island, courting and looking for potential nesting sites.  The sooties tend to nest in scrapes in the sand, whereas the noddies prefer to be slightly above the ground, making messy nests of sargassum and sea grass in the scrub a foot or two above the ground.

I’m seeing double-crested cormorants on an almost daily basis these days, usually sleeping or nesting on the south coaling dock ruins.

A double-crested cormorant winnowing on one of the south dock ruins. Winnowing is the process cormorants and anhingas use to dry their wings after a dive for fish, since they lack the well-developed preen gland to waterproof their feathers.

The south docks are also still reliable spots for sighting:

  • Laughing gull
  • Herring gull (1 or 2)
  • Brown pelican
  • Royal tern
  • Sandwich tern
  • Black skimmer

Unique shot showing the resting behavior of the black skimmer, whose large bill and head is easier to rest on the ground for long periods of time.

I’m sad to say I’ve only seen our friends the willet and whimbrel once in the last week. Perhaps they’ve moved from their usual haunt on the south helipad to another shore or island, or they have moved on to find their own breeding grounds. Either way, I would not consider either bird a sure thing in the coming days, but I will keep you posted.

The parade ground is still rather stark, but you’re likely to see:

  • Eurasian collared dove
  • Palm warbler
  • American kestrel (1)

The magnificent frigatebirds are still carrying nesting material back to the nests on a daily basis.

Close-up of an adult male magnificent frigatebird carrying nesting material back to Long Key.

I’ve seen more than one brown pelican molting into breeding plumage, whereby the white feathers on the back of the neck are traded out for a black, then deep red color.

This is a brown pelican going through the molt transition of the solid white neck to what will soon be a rusty red color. The short, under feathers seen here are black.

More to come next week, but until then, happy birding!

–Chelsea B.

The Brown Noddies have Arrived

Friday, February 17th, 2012

The last week has been quite exciting as the sooty terns continue to swarm over Bush Key, in numbers now well into the thousands.  They have recently been joined by their less-vocal breeding ground neighbors, the brown noddies.  These elegant terns are covered in uniform chocolate-brown feathers, only interrupted by a small white “cap” on the tops of their heads. The noddies and sooties both nest on Bush Key during breeding season, so they aren’t always easy to tell apart at a distance, given their similar size and build.

Bush Key may be closed to visitors, but it's just opening for business for these guys!

Keep in mind that the noddy is more comfortable on the ground at this point than the sooty, either on the shoreline or in the vegetation; most of the sooties still spend the majority of the day vocalizing and flying over the island.  In flight, the sooty has a stark white underside that contrasts dramatically with its “sooty” back, making it easy to distinguish from the dark brown underbelly of the noddy.

A couple of interesting yet brief visitors to Fort Jefferson this week were a pair of northern rough-winged swallows that made one pass in front of the sally port and were not seen again; a belted kingfisher also flew by the dock just as the boat was heading back to Key West one afternoon as well.

The brown boobies are still very reliably perched on Iowa Rock (green channel marker #3) almost every morning and afternoon, and the masked boobies are in the full-swing of breeding season over on Hospital Key—two great lifers for many avid birders.

Several other species seen on an almost daily basis at Garden Key:

  • Magnificent frigatebird
  • Laughing gull
  • Herring gull
  • Royal tern
  • Sandwich tern

I just liked the nice size comparison here of a sandwich tern (foreground) to the two behemoth royal terns in the background. The "mustard-dipped" tip of the sandwich's bill is nicely visible in this shot as well.

  • Black skimmer
  • Ruddy turnstone
  • Willet
  • Whimbrel
  • Eurasian collared dove

Eurasian collared dove stopping for a drink at the bird fountain in the Parade Ground. These birds are much larger than their mourning dove cousins, and are actually an invasive species in the United States (hence the name).

  • Palm warbler (winter phase)

Palm warbler in winter plumage showing distinctive yellow undertail coverts and white eye stripe. Keep an ear out for their chipping in the parade ground, and watch for the constant tail "bobbing."

  • American kestrel

That’s all I’ve got for you this week. Hope to see you out at the Tortugas!

Happy birding.

–Chelsea B.

Friday, February 10th, 2012 (The sooties are here!)

Friday, February 10th, 2012

I would like to take a minute with the first entry of the New Year to wish all you birders a very happy 2012. So far, the year is off to a great start at the Dry Tortugas, and since I’m meeting more and more fellow birders on board with each passing week, I’d also like to introduce myself: my name is Chelsea Barattini, and I’m just one of many great crew members aboard the Yankee Freedom II. However, the reason I’m writing you now is because one of my great passions is birding, and we’ve got some great ones out at the Tortugas.

I’ll try to outline the species seen out at the Jefferson Fort as frequently as I can for you, particularly if it will help any of you add new birds to your life lists. My aim is to make this blog as practical and helpful as possible.

The Sooty Terns have Re-terned:

Park rangers started reporting sooties calling at night out over Bush Key in mid-to-late January, although my first sooty sighting wasn’t until January 31st, when I heard and saw two birds calling as they flew over the north side of Garden Key, heading over to Bush Key. Over the next week, the birds started trickling in, and in the last few days hundreds of them have made their way across the ocean to the Dry Tortugas. They’ve only just started landing on the island, since most of them haven’t touched land since they fledged from the same island several years before! The distinctive “wide-a-wake!” call can be heard from the boat before even reaching Garden Key, and persists as cheery background noise throughout the afternoon, a sure sign that baby sooty terns will be here in a couple of months.

The sooties share Bush Key with another big nester, the brown noddy, although they probably won’t make an appearance for quite a few more weeks.

The magnificent frigatebirds are in full force out at the park, gearing up for another breeding season on Long Key. Both males and females can be seen flying over the fort, sometimes carrying nesting material back to the colony, and the occasional male may be seen with his red throat pouch inflated like a balloon in a very unique courtship display.

two juvenile magnificent frigatebirds "fighting" over a piece of nesting material

The Ride Out:
During the two and a half hour ride from Key West to the Park, a vigilant birder may observe from the outside decks several pelagic species. Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, black skimmers, and royal terns are common on the ride out as well as on Garden Key, where they are typically the most visible from the south helipad overlooking the South Coaling Dock Ruins.

Another beautiful bird to look out for is the Northern gannet, a large white diving bird that is known for its spectacular plunge-dives into the water after small fish and squid. I see a handful of gannets every morning this time of year, although they are easy to miss if you are not keeping a sharp eye out. Be careful to know your markings on this bird and not to confuse it with a masked booby, as the two species have similar body shapes and colorations (hint: the gannet’s black wing bars extend across the entire wing, while the masked booby’s wings have black only at the tips). The masked booby is another great bird to check off your lists at the Dry Tortugas, as they have a small nesting colony on Hospital Key, which can been seen from the boat on the way into the park. Have your binocs and scopes at the ready, as these shy birds tend to stay put on the island as the boat passes by.

Their smaller cousin, the brown booby, however, is not as bashful, and while they don’t nest in the park, they can be seen in small numbers at the park throughout most of the year, usually perching on the green channel markers inside the park boundaries.

two brown boobies loafing on a channel marker in the Park boundaries

The Coaling Dock Ruins:
The south coaling dock ruins have been the best place, in my opinion, for viewing birds like gulls and terns. For the last several weeks, the following species have been viewed here on a daily basis and in decent numbers: laughing gulls, royal terns, brown pelicans, and black skimmers. The sandwich terns made an appearance this week, as I counted several dozen of them on February 6th at the docks. A few herring gulls in various growth stages have been hanging around, as well as one or two double-crested cormorants.

flock of black skimmers hanging out on the south helipad

royal terns on the south helipad. the bird in the foreground is banded.

However, two of my favorite birds on the whole island like to hang out on the south beach helipad (concrete slab overlooking the south docks). There has been a single willet and single whimbrel living on Garden Key for several months. They both look healthy, and I never go more than a day or two without seeing either of them. The cool thing is that they are usually together, loafing within several feet of one another or perched on the same piling. Last week some unusually heavy rains brought in a small flock of black-bellied plovers that kept the two birds company for a few days.

The whimbrel (left) and willet (right) sunning themselves on the south helipad

two of the briefly-visiting black-bellied plovers

Upon arrival at Fort Jefferson, it is impossible to miss your welcoming committee of ruddy turnstones, as there are a few dozen that act like they own the island in the winter months; every so often they are joined by a small posse of sanderlings.

three ruddy turnstones who thought the boat was very interesting..

The Parade Ground:
The parade ground is, and has been since fall migration, a fairly quiet place. I can guarantee you will see at least one Eurasian collared dove on your way into the Fort, and once inside, you may see the winter resident American kestrel, who I’ve been keeping tabs on for a few months now. The abundance of anoles that live in the parade ground provides plenty of sustenance for the little raptor.
A small handful of warblers may be seen or heard chipping inside the Fort, mostly palm and prairie, from what I’ve been able to identify of the small songbirds that are neither in breeding plumes or singing this time of year.

I think that about does it for my first entry, and I’ll try to be a bit more succinct as the posts progress. I hope this helps, and I hope to see some of you out at the Tortugas soon!

–Chelsea B.

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