Archive for the ‘Birding at the Dry Tortugas’ Category

Spring Migration Coming to a Fulfilling End

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Greetings Dry Tortugas birders,

I hope everyone made the most out of this year’s spring migration, and maybe some of you made the Dry Tortugas part of the experience.  We had a couple of late fronts that blew some exciting birds down at the park, including a fork-tailed flycatcher and over tw0-hundred yellow-billed cuckoos!

Fork-tailed flycatcher in late April  after a storm.

Fork-tailed flycatcher in late April after a storm.

There has also been a regular black noddy spotted on the Bush Key tern colony for the last couple of weeks, although that particular bird continues to elude me.

Keep an eye out for bridled terns on the ride to and from the park, as they have been regular sightings while underway, and the roseate terns have been regularly sighted from the south coaling dock ruins.

The late warblers to show up were quite beautiful, including yellow, chestnut-sided, bay-breasted, magnolia, Tennessee, and Nashville.

Yellow warbler in the parade ground.

Yellow warbler in the parade ground.

Magnolia warbler near the south beach dunes.

Magnolia warbler near the south beach dunes.

Male chestnut-sided warbler at the temporary water source.

Male chestnut-sided warbler at the temporary water source.

Birders coming back for a repeat trip to the Dry Tortugas, keep in mind that the NPS has taken down the long-standing brick bird fountain from the parade ground, and temporarily replaced it with a small plastic container of fresh water. It’s no where near as large as the prior fountain, and the water does not flow, but it does seem to attract the smaller passerines. Please direct any questions about the fountain and it’s future to the National Park Rangers.

Male bay-breasted warbler in the parade ground.

Male bay-breasted warbler in the parade ground.

We also had an Antillean short-eared owl that was sighted several times over a tw0-week period in mid-April.

Antillean short-eared owl that stuck around for several weeks in mid-April.

Antillean short-eared owl that stuck around for several weeks in mid-April.

Also keep an eye out for continuing white-crowned pigeons, bobolinks, upland sandpipers, and a shiny cowbird this week!

Hope to see you out there!

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

After last week’s cold front, the migrants keep coming

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

Happy April, Dry Tortugas birders!

I hope everyone is having a fun and productive spring migration season this year. We haven’t even reached peak season out at Fort Jefferson yet, but even the casual birder is racking up at least 30-40 species in a day trip out to the Park right now.

The sooty tern chicks have hatched (according to NPS biologists), so the young birds should be fledgling and visible on the shorelines of Bush Key in the coming weeks.

I’ve posted some photos of regular migrants to the Dry Tortugas, and will post an additional warbler post dedicated to the colorful little birds.

One lonely glossy ibis has been hanging out with a large flock of cattle egrets in the parade ground, browsing for insects.

One lonely glossy ibis has been hanging out with a large flock of cattle egrets in the parade ground, browsing for insects.

On this gray kingbird, notice the bulkier overall size, heavier bill, and the head that lacks the distinctive black cap of the eastern kingbird.

First gray kingbird of the season. These tropical migrants will be nesting in the Keys during the spring and summer.

First gray kingbird of the season. These tropical migrants will be nesting in the Keys during the spring and summer.

The songbirds are bright, singing, and abundant in almost any tree in the parade ground or near the camp sites, and several accipiters are still present, including kestrels, merlins, and a pair of peregrines.

One of several merlins present for the last week in the parade ground. The resident kestrel is not too happy having to defend its territory against the marauders.

One of several merlins present for the last week in the parade ground. The resident kestrel is not too happy having to defend its territory against the marauders.

Male scarlet tanager seen last week in the parade ground.

Male scarlet tanager seen last week in the parade ground.

Male summer tanager has been present for at least a week.

Male summer tanager has been present for at least a week.

Notice the key difference between the eastern US’s two most common tanagers: the black wings present in the scarlet, and lacking in the summer.

The first observed yellow-billed cuckoo of the season.

The first observed yellow-billed cuckoo of the season.

A very elusive bird, they flush from the trees when startled, so you must look carefully for this well-camouflaged bird.

Female yellow-bellied sapsucker on a buttonwood in the parade gorund.

Female yellow-bellied sapsucker on a buttonwood in the parade ground.

Three unique birds seen (and confirmed by photograph) by other birders at DRTO but not by myself include: Antillean nighthawk, Antillean (or Arawak) owl, and American golden plover.

Good luck and hope to see you out at the beautiful Dry Tortugas!

Happy Florida Keys birding,

–Chelsea B.

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!


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.

May Bird Blog

Monday, July 19th, 2010

By: Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

This Brown Noddy built the largest nest I have ever seen with lots of seaweed and sticks Masked Booby birds with eggs on Hospital Key

May Bird Blog

May is a month I normally spend in Alaska, but this summer I elected to stay on the Yankee Freedom II as a naturalist until Mid-July, returning in early September. I am excited to see the Masked Booby chicks grow and to see the Roseate and Bridled terns nest, but probably most excited to watch the Sooty terns prepare their chicks for departure to the waters off Africa where these young birds will live over the open ocean eating fish and drinking seawater for three to five years.


Spring Migration Peaks in Dry Tortugas

Thursday, June 3rd, 2010

April birding is always a thrill in the Dry Tortugas and this April was no exception. Late March and early April were good, but the arrival of a large number of Merlins in early and mid April did result in death for many migrants. Late April was awesome – 92 species in 3 days (23 were warblers).

Week of March 22nd

First adult Northern Gannets observed on ferry ride to Dry Tortugas heading north to the breeding grounds. Peregrine and Merlin are being seen in the paradeground. An Upland Sandpiper is feeding on the septic drainfield in the paradeground and joined later in the week by Pectoral Sandpipers.

Upland Sandpiper


Migration is commencing Sooty Tern are hatching

Monday, April 26th, 2010

Week of February 14th: Snipe were consistently sited in the Parade Ground. A few Killdeer were arriving as well. Masked Booby birds appeared to be nesting on Hospital Key. The first Prairie Warbler was spotted on February 16th. I saw lots of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, especially in the Parade Ground. (more…)

Sooty Terns have Arrived

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Burrowing Owls have Babies

After two owls were found at Dry Tortugas National Park, speculation was made about possible nesting. A burrow was located but the second owl seemed to have disappeared. We searched hard during the Christmas bird count but it could not be located. On Jan 13th, we discovered the owl that roosts daily in the powder magazine is “Dad”. “Mom” is in the burrow – which is too deep for us to see any chicks. One chick was found dead, probably attacked by a rat at the mouth of the burrow. I listen regularly for activity and the Park Rangers are watching, but the female and chicks have yet to be seen.


Burrowing Owls in Parade Ground at Fort Jefferson

Friday, January 1st, 2010

By: Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Fall migration landed a big surprise for Fort Jefferson guests. First, a single Burrowing Owl was observed sleeping every day in the main powder magazine inside Fort Jefferson. A burrow was observed and the search began for a second owl. It’s presence has been verified and now the wait begins to see if the owls will mate and lay eggs, and perhaps raise chicks in the parade ground. It could be a very exciting event for winter and spring visitors this season.



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