Archive for the ‘Yankee Freedom & the Dry Tortugas’ Category

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.

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.


About the Author

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

I was born in New York in 1955. I attended Penn State University, where I played field hockey goalie. I graduated in 1976 with a B.S. in Environmental Science specializing in Marine Science.

My passions in life include bird watching, fishing and nature in general. My husband, Glenn, and I reside in Alaska during the summer and commercial fish for stone crab in the Keys in the winter. I have been a part time seasonal CAST member on the Yankee Freedom for eight years and a resident of the Florida Keys for 30 years.

Debra Hess

The Sooty’s Have Arrived

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Recent excitement about the annual arrival of Sooty Terns for the 2008 breeding season were realized on Wednesday, January 30, 2008. The arrival of the Yankee Freedom II to Dry Tortugas National Park docks that Wednesday coincided with a sky darkened by thousands of Sooty Terns, swooping over Bush Key, and calling enthusiastically in mating bliss. The birds commence egg laying immediately, and by early February chicks should hatch and adult parents will scramble in a fish catching frenzy to feed the chicks.

Sooty TernsSooty TernSooty Egg


Cold Front Brings Waves and Gannets

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Winter season has arrived and Northern Gannets have been the highlight of our boat rides aboard the Yankee Freedom II. These large sea birds with white plumage and black wing tips have been peppering the seas surrounding the Marquesas Islands catching bait fish. Gannets are migratory sea birds usually found in the coastal regions of the North Atlantic. Many gannets (especially young birds) winter in the Gulf of Mexico.

Young Gannet



Tuesday, September 25th, 2007


Debra Hess
Yankee Freedom II Naturalist

Departing Key West at 8 am this full day trip to the Dry Tortugas will be led by National Park Service Research Biologist Sonny Bass. Sonny offers years of experience in the Dry Tortugas, as well as a wealth of knowledge on the birds of these islands. Expect to observe Masked Booby birds year-round nesting residents of Hospital Key,and Magnificent Frigatebirds year-round nesting residents of Long Key. (more…)


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