Archive for the ‘Dry Tortugas Bird Watching’ Category

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.

Spring Migration is Here!

Friday, March 8th, 2013

 

Greetings Dry Tortugas birders!

I know it’s been a while, but after working out some technical difficulties, out bird blog is up and running again at full force, just in time for spring migration at the Dry Tortugas.

For birders new to this remote and beautiful national park, if you’re planning your spring trip, here are the Dry Tortugas specialties you’re guaranteed to see:

Masked Booby

Brown booby

Magnificent frigatebird

Brown noddy

Sooty tern

There has also been one confirmed sighting of a bridled tern mixed in with the sooty colony, but no black noddy sightings have been made as of yet.

I’ve posted below some photos of spring migrants from the last week, and hopefully there are many more to come.

Barn swallow flying over parade ground.

Barn swallow flying over parade ground.

Young male bunting sitting in first-tier casemate.

Young male bunting sitting in first-tier casemate.

Close-up of young male blue bunting, midway between juvenile and adult plumage.

Close-up of young male blue bunting, midway between juvenile and adult plumage.

Bonaparte's gull seen for several days in moat, eating bugs from between the bricks.

Bonaparte’s gull seen for several days in moat, eating bugs from between the bricks.

Close-up of winter Bonaparte's gull.

Close-up of winter Bonaparte’s gull.

Burrowing owl perched in first-tier case mate.

Burrowing owl perched in first-tier case mate.

Forster's tern in winter plumage, perched on south coal piling with two sandwich terns.

Forster’s tern in winter plumage, perched on south coal piling with two sandwich terns.

Northern parula perched on button wood in parade ground.

Northern parula perched on button wood in parade ground.

Adult peregrine falcon seen perching on Bush Key and flushing tern colony.

Adult peregrine falcon seen perching on Bush Key and flushing tern colony.

Beautiful royal tern on far left in full breeding plumage (full black cap).

Beautiful royal tern on far left in full breeding plumage (full black cap).

I hope these photos were both helpful and exciting for any birders planning to come visit the Dry Tortugas National Park. Happy birding and see you at Fort Jefferson!

–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!

–Chelsea

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.

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

(more…)

Summer Terns in the Dry Tortugas

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Terns are certainly one of the amazing wonders of the bird world.  Most stunning is the migration of the Arctic Tern yearly from the Arctic to Antarctic and back.  This summer while catching lots of King Salmon at a remote fish camp on the Nushagak River (this river drains to Bristol Bay – Alaska’s premier sockeye salmon fishery)  I was mesmerized by Arctic Terns.  Both eye- and ear-catching, busy, always busy guarding their young and catching fish to fatten the chicks for the long flight south.  Bills, legs and feet turn blood red during breeding season making them striking in appearance and sharp in call.

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns

Arctic Terns

The Dry Tortugas has four species of oceanic (open ocean home) terns that utilize these remote islands for summer nesting.  (more…)

Northbound – The Birds Are Still Coming

Thursday, June 11th, 2009
Birdwatchers at fountain in parade ground of Ft. Jefferson – a great place to spot warblers and more.

Birdwatchers at fountain in parade ground of Ft. Jefferson – a great place to spot warblers and more.

A spring surprise Black-Necked Stilt

A spring surprise Black-Necked Stilt

By: Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Spring birdwatching at the Dry Tortugas National Park remains excellent and as summer approaches snorkeling reaches its peak.  Late spring trips on Yankee Freedom II offer excellent opportunities for both snorkeling and birdwatching on a single day trip.  (more…)

Sooty Terns Are Back
Christmas Bird Count a Success
Masked Booby to Nest on Middle Key

Monday, February 16th, 2009

By: Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Six Sooty Terns were observed on January 17th cruising over Bush Key during the day and large numbers of Terns were heard calling at night during the Christmas Bird Count (Dec. 16-18).

The actual arrival of large numbers (several thousand) occurred around January 26th, and this is the earliest ever recorded for these Terns for their nesting season. Their arrival has coincided with several strong cold fronts which may spell disaster for the early egg laying. The Terns have been arriving earlier and earlier for nesting for about 15 years – researchers say Sooty Terns may be an indicator species for global warming. But those earlier arrivals leave the birds subject to egg predation from migrating gulls and the effects of springtime cold fronts stressing the colony.

(more…)

Magnificent Frigatebirds, Masked Booby, Sooty Tern, and Brown Noddy Terns busy nesting.

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Frigatebird Sooty Tern Brown Noddy Terns

I recently spent four days in the Dry Tortugas volunteering on Sooty Tern research. These are highlights of my trip: (more…)

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