Unusual sea-duck spotted at DRTO!

November 22nd, 2012

One of the most exciting birds I’ve seen at the Tortugas all year is the arrival of a female black scoter yesterday. This is a species of completely oceanic duck that only sees land to breed. A lone female hung around the harbor all day yesterday. I managed to get a nice shot of her as she swam past the boat.

My first sighting of a female black scoter at the Park!

The whimbrel has decided to join the willet back at the fort, which was nice to see.

The whimbrel has arrived. This photo was taken on the dinghy beach on the south side of the island.

I also managed a nice comparison shot of several royal terns, a sandwich tern, and the little Forster’s tern, all of which were perched on the same piling. One banded royal tern was just trying to land on the same piling, and scared off the lone sandwich tern.

Left to right: sandwich tern, three royal terns, and the tiny little Forster's tern on the right. Note the band on the left leg of the landing royal tern.

Happy Thanksgiving and happy birding!

–Chelsea B.

Plovers stop over, gannets on the way

November 18th, 2012

Now that the fall and winter seasons are approaching, this means we’re seeing much more shore bird activity out at the Fort, as well as sea bird activity en route to and from the Park. I saw a flock of about forty northern gannets feeding out by Ballast Key this evening, and managed to snap a shot of this adult in flight.

Northern gannet feeding in the Gulf near Ballast Key, one of a larger flock seen today.

I’ve seen two winter-plumage piping plovers together, trying their best to be inconspicuous on the south coaling pier platform. Note the lack of black banding that is more characteristic of the breeding plumage birds. If you manage to see them up close at the Fort, listen carefully for their little whistle-like alarm calls.

Two winter-adult piping plovers, note the bright orange legs, stubby black bill and lack of black neck bands.

I also captured a nice shot of an adult male resident frigatebird flying overhead with a piece of nesting material; this was one of several I saw today exhibiting similar behavior.

Male frigatebird carrying nesting material.

The windy days have been blowing in some interesting birds, including a flock of 300 + turkey vultures that took refuge in the Fort last night to roost. They were gone early this morning.

Keep your eyes to the skies.

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

Shore birds and sea birds abound!

November 16th, 2012

This week, we’ve had some exciting activity from several species of sea bird and shore birds at the Dry Tortugas. The magnificent frigatebird colony on Long Key is gearing up for breeding season, as many of the males can be seen flying overhead with their throat pouches inflated.

Male magnificent frigatebird flying over the Fort, displaying a not-fully-inflated throat pouch.

I’ve also managed to snap some shots of two winter-plumage Forster’s terns, seen on the south coal pilings, hidden among the numerous sandwich and royal terns. The Forster’s are much smaller than the smallest sandwich tern, and lack the black cap that the sandwich terns exhibit all year long.

One of the dainty Forster's tern in winter plumage; note the dark eye patch, dark bill, and dark red legs. Much smaller than the other terns at the Park.

Our trusty willet is back for yet another fall and winter season, and while it’s been seen on a daily basis, his constant companion last year, the whimbrel, has only been seen on occasion.

Winter willet, possibly the same bird from last year at the Tortugas.

In passing, there have been several stop-over flocks of winter-plumage black-bellied plovers, usually seen gathering on the south pier heli-pad.

Medium-sized flock of black-bellied plovers resting on the edge of the south helicopter pad. Their traditional black "bellies" have been replaced by their winter whites.

Only time will tell what the rest of the winter winds will bring in.

happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

Some late raptor migrants linger at Fort

November 13th, 2012

This week at Fort Jefferson, a handful of raptors are still visible on a daily basis. An American kestrel, cooper’s hawk, peregrine falcon, and female northern harrier were all spotted in the last twenty-four hours.

The last large (presumable female) cooper's hawk seen patrolling the parade ground.

I’ve posted two photos of the harrier that show the white rump patch that helps sex the bird as a female, as well as a profile photo depicting the distinctive owl-like facial “disc” of feathers unique to the harrier in the hawk world.

Shot of the female harrier flying away, showing the stark white rump patch.

Profile of the female harrier, note the indentation of facial feathers, or "disc," which is used to aid in sight hunting.

The photo of the white-winged doves shows two clean profiles of the birds as they were milling about the parade ground. They are easily distinguished from mourning doves by their lack of black spots and stark white wing edges.

Two of the four white-winged doves seen in the parade ground yesterday and today, the white wing patches visible on each bird.

Hope these photos help in your identification quest of birds of the Dry Tortugas.

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

Burrowing owl, merlins, and kestrels bring a great end to fall migration

November 10th, 2012

So we’ve had a lot going on in the last couple of months at the Dry Tortugas National Park. Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy put a damper on the Park, briefly halting all commercial transport out, but the weather has taken a turn for the better, cooling down in the low seventies in the last week with a nice breeze. This has made soaring quite easy for the raptors that remain out at the fort, late migrants.

I’ve seen a female harrier, peregrine falcons, merlins, kestrels, and cooper’s hawks in the last couple of weeks. I even saw the remains of a kestrel in the parade ground, most likely predated by a cooper’s hawk of merlin.

Peregrine falcon perched on the tower.

Cooper's hawk cruising over the parade ground.

American kestrel perched on the top tier of the Fort.

However, the most exciting recent sighting was the return of a lone burrowing owl that hadn’t been seen since December of 2010 at the Park. As of last Wednesday, the bird was roosting peacefully in the main powder magazine, clearly visible when you walked into the magazine.

Burrowing owl perched inside the main powder magazine.

Hopefully the beautiful little bird sticks around for a few more days.

More updates to come.

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

August 10th, 2012

Hi there everyone,

Just wanted to post a few new photos for y’all, including some new arrivals, long-term residents, and long-term guests. First, we’ve got a small group of turkey vultures that’s lingered out at the Tortugas for over a month now. They must have enough fish and bird carrion on the beaches to sustain them for this length of time. Several of them can usually be seen kettling over the Fort when the wind or thermals are just right.

Group of turkey vultures perched on the tower at Fort Jefferson.

As far as our resident colony of magnificent frigatebirds is concerned, keep an eye out for the occasional banded bird. Because of their impressive wingspan, these adult birds sport wing bands, one on each wing, at the wrist joint. The bands are usually bright yellow with black letter/number codes to identify each banded individual. Take a look at the photo below to get an idea of what to look for on a banded frigatebird.

Two female magnificent frigatebirds, the one on the left is banded.

As summer comes to a close to make way for our mild fall, the birds are more indicative of the season change than the deceptive temperatures. In the photo below, you can see four very different birds, each representing a different aspect of a year at the Dry Tortugas. The laughing gulls are present all year round, the brown noddies a spring and summer nesting resident, the Forster’s tern a brief visitor after bad weather, and the recently arrived sandwich terns (and not pictured: royal terns) are indicative of the approaching fall months.

From left to right: laughing gull, brown noddy, Forster's tern, and sandwich tern.

Keep an eye out for more fall arrivals in the coming weeks, especially as the last of the brown noddies depart and the sandwich terns, royal terns, and black skimmers begin to make their presence known.

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

Brown Boobies visible daily, Masked booby colony out of sorts

August 5th, 2012

An interesting turn of events has occurred out at the Dry Tortugas recently: Hospital Key, the location of the small nesting colony of masked boobies, has now become two separate islands. The current and summer rains have washed a channel right through the middle of the small island, disorienting the birds. For now, the colony seems to be huddling on the west-Hospital Key, and I don’t think it’s a drastic enough change to cause them to vacate the colony. This is the first time many NPS rangers and Yankee Freedom II crew have seen the small island split in two.

Fortunately, the small resident population of brown boobies haven’t gone anywhere, and they don’t seem to mind the boat’s close passes to their hangout on Iowa Rock on a daily basis.

Four quizzical brown boobies and two brown noddies perched happily on Iowa Rock (Channel Marker #3).

Another shot of the brown boobies on Iowa Rock. Note the white bellies, which contrast nicely with the brown body feathers and yellow bills and feet.

More to come soon.

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

Shorebirds a-plenty have begun to arrive!

August 3rd, 2012

Hi there fellow birders,

Just wanted to drop a line on a few species of shore birds and terns that I’ve spotted in the last week out at the Park.

A new species at Fort Jefferson for me was this great white heron that stuck around for a whole afternoon last week.

Great white heron browsing the wrack on the seaplane beach.

I’ve also seen this nice-looking lesser yellowlegs around the boat dock for several days in a row. Keep an eye out for some semipalmated sandpipers and ruddy turnstones as well.

Lesser yellowlegs standing in the surf near the NPS dock.

Finally, I do believe our resident willet has returned, but this time he’s traded his whimbrel buddy for a black-bellied plover!

Black-bellied plover (foreground) and willet (background).

Enjoy and happy birding!

–Chelsea B.

Fall migration for tern colonies begins early

July 21st, 2012

Greetings everyone,

Just wanted to give y’all a quick update on the bird status out at the Park. Most importantly, Bush Key has been mostly vacated by the sooty tern and brown noddy colonies.  A few straggling brown noddy adults and juveniles are still flitting about, but I haven’t seen a sooty tern in several days. This early departure (~1 month ahead of schedule) may be a result of the especially mild winter most of the country experienced this year.

Some of the windy and stormy days we’ve experienced this summer have also brought some brief visitors to the Park, including two Forster’s terns last week. They only stopped for a few minutes, but I was able to get a few shots of them on the coaling dock ruins.

Nice shot of two Forster's terns that touched down briefly on the south coaling dock ruins last week. This was shortly after a rain storm and some strong winds that week.

The little blue heron, great blue heron, and snowy egret are still around, enjoying the regular schools of bait hanging around the Fort.

Beautiful profile shot of the juvenile little blue heron that seems to be thriving out at the Park, as well as keeping the great blue heron company.

Snowy egret and brown pelican feeding on a bait ball off the east side of Garden Key.

I’ve seen some interesting pelicans this week, including an adult with the characteristic black feathers on the top of the head that indicate the bird is feeding a chick somewhere.

Adult brown pelican with the black "chick feeding" feathers on forehead.

Sadly, I’ve also seen a young bird out there with a fair amount of fishing line in its bill and pouch. Please take a good look at this photo and realize how important it is to keep wildlife wild, which includes feeding pelicans bait and scraps from your fishing trips.

Juvenile brown pelican swimming off the coast of Garden Key. Note the monofiliment fishing line protruding from its bill. This is why it is so important to obey all fishing rules and regulations anywhere, not just in a National Park. If you see pelicans starting to come around your fishing area, do not feed the birds scraps, guts, or bait. These are wild birds and when they don't have a healthy fear of people, they become bold and will even snatch fish from poles, causing injuries like this one.

This bird had a hard time feeding, and if it can’t be caught or free itself of the line, it may very well starve to death. Please spread the word and encourage your friends and family to fish responsibly.

–Chelsea B.

Bald Eagle flies the coop, a few oddballs drop in after tropical storm Debby

July 15th, 2012

Greetings Dry Tortugas birders,

After losing several trip days to the Park in the wake of tropical storm Debby, I’m back in full force to bring you the birding news. After nearly two weeks of munching on brown noddies and sooty tern chicks, the beautiful bald eagle juvenile finally left the park. I did manage to snap a couple nice shots of the youngster before it took off.

The young bald eagle soaring over the top of Fort Jefferson.

Surveying the territory from the communications tower at the Fort.

In the few days after Debby brought her drenching rains and heavy gusts out to Fort Jefferson, a few weary birds hung out for a short time, including a white ibis (one afternoon), an adult yellow-crowned night heron (nearly a week), and a northern mockingbird (one day observed). These birds were traveling over the Gulf and were grounded to seek refuge during the inclement weather. They’ve all left by now, but I did snap a few shots before their departures. There’s also one fat and happy great blue heron that’s been living on bait fish for several weeks now, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to leave anytime soon.

White ibis perched in the parade ground after the storm.

A beautiful yellow-crowned night heron in the parade ground after Debby.

A lost northern mockingbird by the camp grounds after Debby.

The hungry, hungry great blue heron.

The sooty and noddy chicks are fully fledged, and the sooties have started heading out already for their wintering grounds, perhaps due to the unusual weather this summer.

Enjoy and I’ll check back in soon with another summer birding update for the Dry Tortugas National Park!

Happy birding,

–Chelsea B.

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