Dawn on April 14 found my dad and I at one of Key West’s ports, about to board the ferry to the Dry Tortugas- the “Yankee Freedom” . This was the day I was most looking forward to on the Florida adventure, with good reason.
The Dry Tortugas (Dry Tortugas National Park) are a group of small barren islands located 70 miles off Key West- the “Gateway to the Gulf.” In appearence, these islands (keys) are not really special- a couple of sandbars and scrubby islands sitting in the beautiful crystalline waters where the Gulf and Atlantic meet. However, the biggest island is home to a huge military fort, built in the 1800’s as an outpost to guard the gulf. The fort didn’t see much action and was later converted into a prison and the government got more use out of it during that period. Now it is a National Park. What makes these islands even more special is their contribution to bird life. Being closer to Cuba than to Florida, the islands provide a scarce nesting ground for thousands of tropical seabirds- Sooty Terns, Noddies, Boobies, etc. The islands are the only spot in the US where these species are found, making it an oasis for birders. Even more special are the migrants- thousands of neotropical species stop over in the forts wooded courtyard to replenish and drink before continuing to the mainland. Being the only land within a huge radius, the Tortugas readily host fallouts and are world famous. Obviously, you can see why I was so excited to witness this National Park and see what we could find.
The boat ride was pleasant, and although not birdy (More Frigatebirds) we saw a nice Loggerhead Sea Turtle and a few Flying fish. After about 2 hours the islands came into view and all of a sudden we were surrounded by a flurry of bird activity. Bridled and Royal Terns appeared, quickly followed by 3 lifers- Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, and Masked Boobies in large numbers flying by! As we docked there were more Frigates hovering overhead and I was so excited to get ashore. Along with fellow birder Chris Inch (who would become our companion for the remainder of the day) we shouldered our gear and started birding. Many tame Ruddy Turnstones were hanging around on the docks and a few Frigates flew right overhead, providing incredible views. They would continue to show off for the rest of the day!
Just as we were about to start birding the courtyard, we got a tip from a birder who had camped overnight that there was a Swainson’s Warbler in the campground. After hearing this, we immediately made a beeline for the campground- Swainson’s Warbler was a migrant I had barely even hoped for. Just upon entering the camping area we were met with a plethora of migrants- Ovenbird, Worm-eating Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Prairie Warbler, etc., but soon we found what we were looking for- a gorgeous Swainson’s Warbler foraging in the brush only feet from us! This normally shy, skulking, swamp warbler was incredibly tame and remained in the same spot for the entire day, allowing us to return and see him multiple times. Very hyped by this sighting, we ran back to the courtyard to see what other migrants we could find.
The Courtyard was not as active as the Campground- surprisingly, migrants were scarce. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Catbird, Cattle Egret, and Merlin all showed nicely, but overall the section we started in was pretty dead. Other birders had told us that new waves of migrants could come in sporadically, so in the meantime we tried our luck on more seabirds. Bush key, connected to the main island by a narrow neck, was hopping with nesting terns and noddies, and pilings alongside the seawalls provided great looks at both of those species and more Brown Pelicans. Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings foraged on the beach. We scanned the channel markers further out and were rewarded with a couple of Brown Boobies, completing our seabird sweep.
We spent a while studying the fascinating seabirds on Bush Key, even noting displaying Frigatebirds, looking like big red balloons in the distance. A few other birds passed by, including a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
Eventually we worked our way back into the courtyard. A small wave of migrants must have passed through, because bird activity had increased quite a bit. Indigo Buntings and Northern Parulas were suddenly in abundance and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Northern Waterthrush, and the highlight- Black-whiskered Vireo- showed nicely. Noting that everything was high up in the trees, we decided to head up to the top of the wall, which proved to be a great idea and one that would carry us to the end of our stay here. As we headed to the stairs we noted a cloud of Tree, Barn, and Northern Rough-winged Swallows feeding on insects.
Once atop the wall we got stunning looks at most of the migrants we had already seen, but were also rewarded with American Redstart and Yellow-throated Warbler.
Knowing that our time on the Tortugas was running short and that we had basically seen most of the migrants on the island we spent our last half hour savoring the beauty of the place from atop the wall and marveling at the common birds of the Dry Tortugas which were so rare elsewhere in America. The Tortugas are such a unique place and they really should be recognized as the national treasure they truly are. As we left and sailed back to Key West, I knew I had just birded a place I might never again- though I hope I do. Next time, though, I’m going to spend the night- and be the one to discover the Swainson’s Warbler, not follow a report!