Archive for March, 2012

Spring has arrived (and so have the migrants)

Friday, March 30th, 2012

Happy spring, Dry Tortugas birders!

The official arrival of spring at Fort Jefferson has been marked by the arrival of some beautiful songbirds.  In addition to nearly a dozen different species of warblers spotted out at the Park, other arrivals such as red and white-eyed vireos, gray cat birds, gray kingbirds, and little blue herons have also sent birders into a frenzy.

I’ve tried to diligently photograph as many of these small, vibrant, and (sometimes) shy birds as I can for you to enjoy, and I hope the following photos help some. Please note that dozens of other species are out at the Fort right now in addition to the photographs here. The shore birds are mostly the same as far as gulls, terns, pelicans, cormorants, and herons; feel free to scan my former entries for a list of shore birds.

Black-bellied plovers and a single piping plover (endangered species) were spotted last week on the tip of Bush Key, which makes having a decent spotting scope advantageous to your trip out here.

The warblers can be spotted anywhere from the campground (gnatcatchers, parulas, palms) to the sea grapes to the parade ground, although, the best passerine spotting is most definitely the bird fountain. Serious birders and warbler fans may want to dedicate 30 minutes to an hour sitting quietly at the bird fountain, where most of the warblers will come down to drink or bathe at least once while you’re sitting there so patiently.

I would also keep your eyes out for three different species of swallows: the most common are barn and northern-rough-winged, but several cave swallows have been sighted in the last week.

Close-up of a prairie warbler hanging out by the bird fountain

One of the dozens of palm warblers out at the Dry Tortugas.

Nice shot of a northern parula posing for the camera.

Here's a shot of the back of a northern parula, with the bright green between the wings clearly visible here.

Close-up of a curious male hooded warbler.

One of the only clear shots I was able to get of this stunning male common yellowthroat.

This cape may warbler stopped for a visit at the bird fountain. The red cheek patches are the defining characteristics for an accurate identification here.

Other warbler species sighted at the fort and not pictured here are yellow-throated, worm-eating, and yellow-rumped.

Profile of a blue-gray gnatcatcher; notice the very distinct white eye ring.

The first gray kingbird of the season at Fort Jeff. It can usually be spotted on one of the snags in the parade ground, much like the kestrel.

Enjoy and see you at the Dry Tortugas!

Happy birding.

–Chelsea B.

Spring is on its way!

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Greetings Dry Tortugas birders!

A lot has happened out here in the last two weeks, so to do the birds justice, this will be the first of a two-part entry to catch you up. Here, I’d like to catch everyone up on what’s going on outside of the parade ground. I’ll let you know what’s going on coming into the park, on the surrounding islands, and on Garden Key.

For those of you coming out to the Tortugas for the four big breeding species, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. On the way into the park, the nesting masked booby colony is still clearly visible on Hospital Key, and we’ve even had some of the birds fly close to the boat for a better look.  Unfortunately, the brown boobies that are usually seen on the channel markers in the park have not been spotted in several weeks.

The magnificent frigatebirds are both a common and impressive constant sight out here, whether above their nesting colony on Long Key or soaring above Fort Jefferson like some ancient pterodactyl. Frequently, immature frigatebirds (white heads) can be seen flying overhead with nesting material in their bills, most likely emulating their parents for when they, too, reach breeding age.

Beautiful juvenile frigatebird "practicing" with nesting material.

Bush Key is certainly the life of the party these days. The island is literally alive with thousands of sooty terns and brown noddies. Many of the birds have chosen nesting sites, although thousands of them can still be seen swarming the island at any given time of day. The calls of the sooty terns can be heard constantly from any point inside Fort Jefferson. Keep an eye out for two or three large white shapes flying among the colony, however, as herring gulls constantly patrol Bush Key, looking for nests filled with eggs, or, better yet, young terns.

Bush Key teeming with terns. Note the lone cattle egret walking in front of the sign.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen a brief visit by a yellow-crowned night heron, who did not stick around long enough for a photograph, as well as two great blue herons.  An adult and a juvenile great blue have stuck around the fort for the last week, possibly blown in from some recent strong winds.  The birds have been seen on the tip of Bush Key closest to the seaplane beach, on the actual seaplane beach, an on the north helicopter pad. The first few cattle egrets of the summer have made an appearance as well, as you could see from the above shot of Bush Key.

The young great blue heron on the seaplane beach.

Can you spot the great blue heron blending in with the ruined wall on the North beach?

The other species I’ve been keeping you informed are all still here, if in fewer numbers: laughing and herring gulls, royal and sandwich terns, black skimmers, double-crested cormorants, and ruddy turnstones. I’m still seeing the willet every day, although the other half of the duo (the lone whimbrel) is now only an occasional sighting.

And for your viewing pleasure, I thought I’d include some great action shots of pelicans working the North swim beach for lunch. The shots here are of an adult breeding pelican, hanging out on the north side of the moat wall with two juveniles.  The adult would very methodically fly off the wall, circle above the north side of the fort, then dive ten-twenty yards off the swim beach. A minute or two later, each of the juveniles would follow suit, clearly still learning the ropes of a successful dive. Though these birds may not be the most unique or coveted species for birders visiting the Dry Tortugas, they have an incredible natural history and beauty all their own.

The three musketeers on the north moat wall. This adult is schooling the two juveniles behind him on the right way to dive for fish!

The adult before stooping into a dive. He's spotted the fish he wants!

The first turn into the stoop...

Hurtling like a rocket towards the water!

We have contact!

Big splash..

Juvenile scouting the terrain.

The three musketeers looking for lunch.

Happy birding!

Part two (songbirds) coming soon!

Cold front a sign of good things to come?

Friday, March 9th, 2012

Hi there Tortugas birders! Sorry it’s been a couple of weeks since my last entry, we’ve just had a cold front move through the Keys and Tortugas for the last week, which caused the Yankee to cancel her trip more than once. Sea conditions were just not safe enough to venture all the way out to the park.  My last day out at the park was Monday, which I realize was four days ago, but I’d still like to let you know what’s been trending out there in the last two weeks.

The sooty terns and brown noddies are quite active right now, and many of both species have started landing on Garden Key at their carefully chosen nest sites. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing brown noddies resting on both the South and North coaling dock pilings.

The first noddy I saw landed on a piling, at the South docks. What a beautiful bird!

I even believe a couple of passengers spotted a lone black noddy sitting on the beach of Garden Key with some brown noddies several days ago. I only heard of this report, and have been keeping an eye out for it since, but with the number of birds on the island, it’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Two brown noddies relaxing and preening on the North coaling dock ruins.

Last week, I did have an adult black-crowned night heron show up unexpectedly on the south pilings.  He only stayed for a short time, but that just goes to show that you should always be on the lookout for the unexpected visitor out there.

The visiting black-crowned night heron, perched on a lone piling at the south dock ruins.

Profile of the same BCNH. very nice contrast here with the water in the background.

Things are starting to get more exciting in the parade ground.  A pair of gray catbirds has been hanging around for the last week; they are usually seen chasing each other through the buttonwoods around the bird fountain. I have also seen quite a few northern parulas, both in the parade ground and around the camping area as well. On Monday, I did see an unidentified flycatcher near the bird fountain.  It stayed there for maybe five seconds then took off, but it appeared about the size of a least flycatcher but had much more yellow plumage than a least.

I had a birder report a sighting of a male indigo bunting in the parade ground, and although I did not see it personally, his photographs showed a mid-molt male indigo quite clearly.

There have also been between 4-6 barn swallows flitting around the moat and in the parade ground.  Their deeply forked tails, bluish backs and ruddy underbellies make them easy id’s even when they are zipping around at a hundred miles an hour.

The pilings on the south side are still reliable for sighting:

Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, herring gulls, royal terns, sandwich terns, black skimmers, and double-crested cormorants.

The willet and whimbrel are back at the south helipad, and don’t seem to be going anywhere, despite their several-day hiatus during my last entry.

For those of you coming out looking for life birds, the sooties and noddies are not difficult to hear or spot with the naked eye, but I wouldn’t come out here without a good pair of binocs or a nice scope to get a look at the timid masked boobies on Hospital Key.

Hope to see some of you out here this week, and fingers crossed for some new birds that came down with the cold front.  Happy birding!

–Chelsea

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