I would like to take a minute with the first entry of the New Year to wish all you birders a very happy 2012. So far, the year is off to a great start at the Dry Tortugas, and since I’m meeting more and more fellow birders on board with each passing week, I’d also like to introduce myself: my name is Chelsea Barattini, and I’m just one of many great crew members aboard the Yankee Freedom II. However, the reason I’m writing you now is because one of my great passions is birding, and we’ve got some great ones out at the Tortugas.
I’ll try to outline the species seen out at the Jefferson Fort as frequently as I can for you, particularly if it will help any of you add new birds to your life lists. My aim is to make this blog as practical and helpful as possible.
The Sooty Terns have Re-terned:
Park rangers started reporting sooties calling at night out over Bush Key in mid-to-late January, although my first sooty sighting wasn’t until January 31st, when I heard and saw two birds calling as they flew over the north side of Garden Key, heading over to Bush Key. Over the next week, the birds started trickling in, and in the last few days hundreds of them have made their way across the ocean to the Dry Tortugas. They’ve only just started landing on the island, since most of them haven’t touched land since they fledged from the same island several years before! The distinctive “wide-a-wake!” call can be heard from the boat before even reaching Garden Key, and persists as cheery background noise throughout the afternoon, a sure sign that baby sooty terns will be here in a couple of months.
The sooties share Bush Key with another big nester, the brown noddy, although they probably won’t make an appearance for quite a few more weeks.
The magnificent frigatebirds are in full force out at the park, gearing up for another breeding season on Long Key. Both males and females can be seen flying over the fort, sometimes carrying nesting material back to the colony, and the occasional male may be seen with his red throat pouch inflated like a balloon in a very unique courtship display.
two juvenile magnificent frigatebirds "fighting" over a piece of nesting material
The Ride Out:
During the two and a half hour ride from Key West to the Park, a vigilant birder may observe from the outside decks several pelagic species. Brown pelicans, laughing gulls, black skimmers, and royal terns are common on the ride out as well as on Garden Key, where they are typically the most visible from the south helipad overlooking the South Coaling Dock Ruins.
Another beautiful bird to look out for is the Northern gannet, a large white diving bird that is known for its spectacular plunge-dives into the water after small fish and squid. I see a handful of gannets every morning this time of year, although they are easy to miss if you are not keeping a sharp eye out. Be careful to know your markings on this bird and not to confuse it with a masked booby, as the two species have similar body shapes and colorations (hint: the gannet’s black wing bars extend across the entire wing, while the masked booby’s wings have black only at the tips). The masked booby is another great bird to check off your lists at the Dry Tortugas, as they have a small nesting colony on Hospital Key, which can been seen from the boat on the way into the park. Have your binocs and scopes at the ready, as these shy birds tend to stay put on the island as the boat passes by.
Their smaller cousin, the brown booby, however, is not as bashful, and while they don’t nest in the park, they can be seen in small numbers at the park throughout most of the year, usually perching on the green channel markers inside the park boundaries.
two brown boobies loafing on a channel marker in the Park boundaries
The Coaling Dock Ruins:
The south coaling dock ruins have been the best place, in my opinion, for viewing birds like gulls and terns. For the last several weeks, the following species have been viewed here on a daily basis and in decent numbers: laughing gulls, royal terns, brown pelicans, and black skimmers. The sandwich terns made an appearance this week, as I counted several dozen of them on February 6th at the docks. A few herring gulls in various growth stages have been hanging around, as well as one or two double-crested cormorants.
flock of black skimmers hanging out on the south helipad
royal terns on the south helipad. the bird in the foreground is banded.
However, two of my favorite birds on the whole island like to hang out on the south beach helipad (concrete slab overlooking the south docks). There has been a single willet and single whimbrel living on Garden Key for several months. They both look healthy, and I never go more than a day or two without seeing either of them. The cool thing is that they are usually together, loafing within several feet of one another or perched on the same piling. Last week some unusually heavy rains brought in a small flock of black-bellied plovers that kept the two birds company for a few days.
The whimbrel (left) and willet (right) sunning themselves on the south helipad
two of the briefly-visiting black-bellied plovers
Upon arrival at Fort Jefferson, it is impossible to miss your welcoming committee of ruddy turnstones, as there are a few dozen that act like they own the island in the winter months; every so often they are joined by a small posse of sanderlings.
three ruddy turnstones who thought the boat was very interesting..
The Parade Ground:
The parade ground is, and has been since fall migration, a fairly quiet place. I can guarantee you will see at least one Eurasian collared dove on your way into the Fort, and once inside, you may see the winter resident American kestrel, who I’ve been keeping tabs on for a few months now. The abundance of anoles that live in the parade ground provides plenty of sustenance for the little raptor.
A small handful of warblers may be seen or heard chipping inside the Fort, mostly palm and prairie, from what I’ve been able to identify of the small songbirds that are neither in breeding plumes or singing this time of year.
I think that about does it for my first entry, and I’ll try to be a bit more succinct as the posts progress. I hope this helps, and I hope to see some of you out at the Tortugas soon!
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