Sooty Terns have Arrived

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.

The 2009 Christmas Audubon bird count was Dec. 16th. Thirty-four species were sighted. Brown Booby birds ruled. We saw so many; on Hospital Key, on navigational markers and in the air.

Native vegetation continues to improve on Loggerhead Key and birds of prey were found including Northern Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-Shouldered Hawk and Peregrine Falcon.

Warblers were very absent. Only four species were observed: Yellow-rump, Prairie, Palm and Redstart. Sooty Terns were heard both nights of our stay but none were seen by day. A list of species observed and numbers follow:

2009 Christmas Bird Count
Magnificent Frigatebird 200 Northern Harrier 2
Brown Booby 121 Semipalmated Plover 2
Sooty Tern 100 Whimbrel 2
Laughing Gull 62 Yellow-crowned Night Heron 2
Brown Pelican 50 American Redstart 1
Northern Gannet 50 Belted Kingfisher 1
Royal Tern 42 Black Skimmer 1
Palm Warbler 40 Burrowing Owl 1
Ruddy Turnstone 39 Pomarine Jaegar 1
Masked Booby 35 Prairie Warbler 1
Sanderling 16 Red-breasted Merganser 1
Black-bellied Plover 14 Red-Shouldered Hawk 1
Double-crested Cormorant 6 Ring-billed Gull 1
Peregrine Falcon 4 Sandhill Crane 1
Sandwich Tern 4 Savannah Sparrow 1
Cooper’s Hawk 3 Willet 1
Great Blue Heron 2 Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Killdeer 2

A Sandhill Crane arrived in the parade ground on Dec. 19th, 2009. Just in time to be included in our Audubon Christmas bird count week. The crane flew over to Bush Key after the ferry arrivals daily and returned in the afternoon. The crane died on Dec. 26th but visitors were amazed with this interesting and large visitor blown south by a winter storm.

Two American Pipits were observed feeding on the drain field grasses of the parade ground in November. Unfortunately they were eaten by a hungry Peregrine Falcon prior to our Christmas bird count.

Windy winter days bring huge flocks of Northern Gannets migrating south. The adults are stunning large white birds with black wing tips and yellow heads. Mixed flocks of young birds (brown), birds molting to adult colors and adults are observed some days by the hundreds. Frequently, they are observed feeding – diving in a torpedo like fashion – tucking in their wings just before piercing the water surface cleanly – like Olympic divers. Tide changes will create color changes in the water – especially observed around the Marquesas Islands on our trip. Gannets frequently sit and feed along these areas.

The winter months also bring Jaegars to the Marquesas Island area. These birds, related to Squas – are always searching for gulls and terns. They steal fish from them and sometimes the aerial displays are awesome. A few weeks ago I observed a Pomerine Jaegar attack a large gull. The gull was able to resist the attack, sending the Jaeger into a tailspin – recovering just before hitting the water. Then he looked up at the huge Yankee Freedom II fast approaching him and flew away just in time to avoid collision. On winter days, especially windy ones, many Jaegars can be sighted. I saw 20 on a late December trip.

Our three regular winter visitors, two Whimbrels and a Willet have been with us since October. Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings rule the beaches. The south coal dock pilings have Pelicans, Royal Terns, Black Skimmers, Sandwich Tern and sometimes Double-crested Cormorants. On the north coaling docks and along the wet end of Bush key there are often Black-bellied Plovers.

When the weather turns warm Black Skimmers will actually lie down and sleep. An amazing sight – looking dead, the Skimmers will rest, head down, wings spread on the warm sandy beach.

I was fortunate to be sitting in the cabin of Yankee Freedom II in December when a large concentration of bait fish swam along the shoreline creating a feeding frenzy of Pelicans, Gulls and Terns coming from every direction. The bait fish were actually driven up on the sandy beaches by the birds.

January 14, 2010 was an exciting event for me – a life bird for my Tortugas list to add to the Sandhill Crane – Smooth-billed Ani. Quite photogenic. Unless he flew over to Loggerhead, he didn’t stay long, only two days. He was probably headed south for warmer weather. It was extremely cold in South Florida in early January. What an interesting sight. The Smooth-billed Ani is a most bizarre looking bird.

January has also brought large numbers of Yellow rumped Warblers to the parade ground of Fort Jefferson, joining the Palm Warblers which are present year round. With a little effort one can usually locate both the Eastern and Western race of Palm Warblers. The Eastern has a much brighter yellow plumage on the chest.

The 1st week of February, 2 Killdeer arrived to the parade ground and a Snipe was observed after a rainstorm.

The Sooty Terns arrived late (Feb. 8th) for their spring nesting. They are joined by a large number of Noddy Terns and the colony is growing in numbers daily now. Eggs have been laid by Sooty’s and a few migratory Herring Gulls can be found feeding on the eggs, creating chaos in the colony.

The bird fountain in the parade ground of Fort Jefferson is repaired and functioning. As migration commences, this is a great area to watch for Warblers and other migrants.

Happy birding! Come and see us soon for excellent spring birding. New migrants are arriving daily.

Photo Credits to Julie Marcero for Photos 2,6,7,8,9,10,15,16,19 & 20

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