May Bird Blog

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.

May is a transition month for bird watching. The last hard push of migrants head to the breeding grounds and the last stragglers struggle to make their way north. May brings some of the most beautiful warblers; Magnolia and Black throated Blue .

Black throated Blue Warbler

After birding in April, May is sort of a letdown. There are still awesome birds but in much fewer numbers. Bird watching now requires more searching but many good species are still found.

Week of May 3rd

Yellow Billed Cuckoo

Many Yellow-billed Cuckoos’ are present. They can be flushed easily by walking through the paradeground. You can watch where the birds land and approach them again. Many of the Caribbean winter migrants are moving north now including the Black throated Blue and Blackpoll Warblers.

Blackpoll Warbler

Gray checked Thrush is common now instead of Swainson’s Thrush and an occasional Veery is sighted.

Grey cheeked Thrush

Dove’s; Mourning and Eurasian-collard are commonly seen. Redstarts are abundant all over Garden Key.

Week of May 10th

Strong easterly winds prevail which always slows bird watching. Magnolia, Black throated Blue and Blackpoll Warblers are present. Redstarts are everywhere but mostly younger birds and very few males. Yellow-billed Cuckoos are still seen but in fewer numbers. Bobolinks head north now – look for them feeding in grasses on the drain field for the sewage treatment plant located in the paradeground. A few swallow still wander north as well including Barn Tree, Cliff and Northern Rough wing. A Merlin is in the Buttonwoods in the paradeground from time to time.


Week of May 17th

Black-necked Stilts

A pair of Black-necked Stilts were observed on the beach of Bush Key. They actually flew over Fort Jefferson where they were originally seen, landing later on Bush Key. Stilts and Avocets, seen rarely in the Tortugas, are always a stunning sight.

Bridled Terns are spotted from time to time in Rebecca Channel approaching and leaving Fort Jefferson.

Bridled terns will lay their egg under the coral where the young chicks can hide from predators and the sun

They are also spotted near man made coral huts on Long Key where they will be nesting in coming weeks.

Bridled tern guarding egg. The adults stand guard over the egg and later young chicks

Roseate terns are frequently observed feeding in groups of Brown Noddy terns. Unlike Sooty and Brown Noddy terns that pluck fish from the water’s surface, Roseates dive into the water to catch their fish. These terns appear to always be busy and active, dainty in flight and purposeful in feeding.

Roseate terns Roseate tern – Bird on right has fish for chicks
Roseate terns – Note: Non-breeding birds have dark bill, Breeding birds have red bill

Sooty terns are lining their chicks up along the beaches and flying lessons are commencing.

Sooty tern chick newly hatched Sooty tern chick several days old. Tern chicks hatch in early March and now in May, prepare to fly for 3 – 5 years
Sooty chick ready to fly

The chicks are fat. Wing-stretching and exercise with short flights will help strengthen their muscles for flight. It is amazing to watch the young chicks encouraged by their parents to flap and flap and suddenly realize they can fly. Flying lessons continue daily and eventually inside Fort Jefferson overhead you can hear parents and chicks discuss flying skills. Much effort is devoted to flying and learning feeding skills because by early to mid-July, the young chicks will head out to sea on their own, while the parents will leave for open ocean waters of the Bahamas and Caribbean. By late May on warm days, parents and chicks soar high on thermals in huge flocks preparing for life at sea. It is truly an amazing sight to see the birds soar effortlessly through the sky for hours at a time.

Sooty adults and chicks group on the beach for flying lessons

Week of May 24th

Young pelicans use their mother’s backside to shade themselves from the hot sun

A trip over Bush Keys finds numerous young Pelicans have hatched. The young birds are quite a sight. Three eggs were laid per nest and all three chicks hatched but it appears all but one chick will die by several weeks old. The young Pelicans defend their nest area vigorously. Bridled terns have laid eggs and at least five nests have been identified. This is the newest bird species to nest in the Dry Tortugas and is exciting news for the park. Roseate terns have also laid eggs at the east end of Bush Key. The Roseates appear to have a very strong return this summer.

Several good friends from Alaska camped on Garden Key for several days in late May. Much time was devoted to birding and they were delighted to sight Warbling Vireo, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bobolinks, Merlin, Blackburian, Black-throated Blue, Blackpoll, Ovenbird and Magnolia Warblers.

Warbling Vireo

They also enjoyed kayaking over by Long Key to observe Frigatebirds, some fantastic snorkeling and fishing from Garden Key. The highlight of their trip was a kayak trip to Loggerhead Key to snorkeling in Little Africa – a reef on the west side of the island. Summer camping in the Dry Tortugas offers excellent opportunities for kayaking, snorkeling (both day and night) and star gazing.

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