Burrowing Owls in Parade Ground at Fort Jefferson

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.

The owls have been heard hunting at night by park rangers – this species is very vocal. They feed on small rodents, insects such grasshoppers and beetles and frogs and geckos.

Burrowing Owls reside year round in South Florida and the Caribbean. Breeding owls from Canada and the Northern US migrate in winter to Mexico and South Florida as well. Burrowing Owls are known to live 9 – 10 years.

Follow this blog over the winter and spring for updates on the Burrowing Owls at Dry Tortugas.

The 11th Annual Birding and Wildlife Festival field trip to Dry Tortugas on Sept. 28, 2009 was another success. Larry Manfreidi (www.southfloridabirding.com) led the crew again and his talents are much appreciated by all who attend. A spectacular weather day gave us a perfect ride to Dry Tortugas National Park. We stopped at Hospital Key to see Masked and Brown Booby birds. Hopefully they will nest on Hospital Key this season – last year they selected Middle Key and had a nesting failure from storm surge.

41 species of birds were sighted on our trip – highlighted by a Canada Warbler, American Golden Plover, Chestnut-sided Warbler and an American Avocet. A great time was had by all and Larry Manfreidi was excellent at helping all the birders with each individual bird sighting. Follow the Birding Festival online for next fall’s trip. A species list from the festival follows.

Fall also offers the opportunity to observe large numbers of hawks and falcons as they move south. These birds of prey travel on thermals and avoid open waters – funneling thru the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas to Cuba and westward across the Yucatan passage to Central and South American. This season Peregrine Falcon, Sharp-shinned Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk were predominate but other common observed species included Kestrel, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk.

The Peregrine’s came first – arriving to Key West and waiting for the perfect thermals to carry them over water to Cuba. This path can include the Dry Tortugas – with both landings and large numbers of birds circling overhead on thermals. Ruddy Turnstones and migrating warblers fear for their lives and visitors enjoy the fastest of all birds – the peregrine – capable of stooping at speeds up to 200 miles/hr swooping thru the walls of Fort Jefferson.

The largest numbers of the hawks arrive later. Many travel to the Florida Keys in kettles of Turkey Vultures. A kettle is a large group of Turkey Vultures – masters of thermal riding – coming south to winter in the Florida Keys. The hawks take advantage of this talent of Turkey Vultures and mix in with them to journey south. However, hawks are on their own past Key West as Turkey Vultures do not venture over open ocean waters. Only an occasional fall cold front will push Turkey Vultures as far as the Dry Tortugas. Sharp-Shinned Hawks travel thru the Tortugas well into November – a small species – Sharp shins can maneuver thru tree branches at high speeds to catch small birds and amaze visitors at both speed and agility.

November boat trips bring the return of migrating Northern Gannets – adults and juveniles. Some days, hundreds are observed feeding and heading south. The Northern Gannet is a diving seabird – like the Booby Bird – capable of tucking it’s wings in a torpedo like fashion – piercing the water cleanly and diving to depths as much as 90’ to catch fish. Adults are brilliant white with black wing tips and yellow heads. Juveniles are brownish. Flocks can be mixed adults and juveniles and many of the younger birds winter in the Gulf of Mexico and waters in and around the Dry Tortugas.

Pomarine Jaeger’s are often seen around the Marquesas Islands and occasionally at Dry Tortugas. This bird, like the magnificent Frigatebird gets it’s food by stealing it from other birds. Flocks of gulls and terns feeding near the Marquesas are frequently robbed of their meal by a greedy Jaegar. Jaegers are also seen sitting on the water in this area.

November was an unusually rainy month in the Dry Tortugas. I observed a Wilson’s Snipe in a wet area of the parade ground. It could hide itself by crouching in the grass with which it blended almost perfectly. Numerous people walked near it without ever seeing the bird. There are still a few migrating warblers- Magnolia, Yellow-rumped and Redstard are most common. Two (2) American Pipits were spotted on the drainfield inside Fort Jefferson but were eaten a hungry Peregrine Falcon.

Join us soon for an exciting day of bird watching on Yankee Freedon II. My schedule on the boat is Tues, Wed, Thurs. If you have a special interest in birds join me, Deb Hess, on one of these weekdays. The Yankee Freedom II runs daily to Dry Tortugas National Park everyday except Christmas.


American Avocet

American Golden Plover

American Redstart

Baltimore Oriole

Bank Swallow

Barn Swallow

Black-bellied Plover


Brown Booby

Brown Pelican

Canada Warbler

Cattle Egret

Chestnut sided Warbler

Cliff Swallow

Common Yellowthroat

Double-crested Cormorant

Eastern Kingbird

Great Egret

Green Heron

Hooded Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Laughing Gull

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnolia Warbler

Masked Booby

Northern Parula

Northern Waterthrush


Palm Warbler

Peregrine Falcon

Prairer Warbler

Ruddy Turnstone


Sandwich Tern

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Swainson’s Thrush


White Ibis


Yellow Warbler

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