Dry Tortugas National Park is doubtlessly one of the most famous and crushingly good birding hotspots in North America. It is mentioned in the same breath as any incredible place birders swarm to for migration...Cape May, Magee Marsh, High Island...you get the picture. Ever since I was a teenager, I drooled about someday going (yes, I also drooled about girls too). Being out in the open ocean, the Tortugas are a migrant vacuum for landbirds...this is one of the few places you can reasonably hope for real fallout. Equally as stoke-inducing is the great collection of nesting and visiting seabirds as well.
Of course, almost all birders go in spring. That's just how it's always been done. That's when warblers are the brightest, that's when fallouts happen, and that's when you have the best chance at seeing the high-quality terns....Sooty, Bridled, Roseate, and Brown and Black Noddies. Fall in the Dry Tortugas is not something birders seem to know much about...so being the Number 7 Birder in the nation, I decided to do something about it.
In the predawn hours of October 17, Booby Brittany and I managed to make it on to the Yankee Freedom III (after I was almost stranded on a sailboat that was NOT going to the Tortugas, but that's another story). Despite my enthusiastic (bordering on desperate) efforts to find any shearwaters or pelagic terns, the boat ride there (and back) was uneventfu beyond a few boobies and frigatebirds. The only surprising thing was the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands are more likely) of lobster traps that carpet the ocean between Key West and the Dry Tortugas...I can't imagine that's a very sustainable fishery.
As we arrived at the Tortugas, so did a rainstorm. As we passed Brown Boobies on channel markers and the mini Masked Booby (year bird) colony on Hospital Key, a sizeable flock of birds appeared out of the rain. As they crossed the bow, I got a good enough look to see they were thrushes...a good sign.
The skies can get quite congested above Fort Jefferson, with frigatebirds and raptors being the most obvious. The Tortugas are probably the best and most reliable place for Magnificent Frigatebirds in the U.S., as they are persent in numbers throughout the year. The white-headed bird is an immature, the black-headed bird a female.
Garden Key has a good roosting spot for gulls, terns and shorebirds. A Piping Plover (year bird) roosts with Black-bellied Plovers.
A flock of Magnificent Frigatebirds met us as we docked at Garden Key, and Booby Brittany and I quickly made our way to the campground to stake out a good spot...we were to stay 3 nights, and wanted to pick a place with shelter from the rain. We wound our way through the tame flock of Ruddy Turnstones and Eurasian Collared-Doves (what a weird mixed flock) and finally settled on a spot, where a Gray Catbird eyed us with anxiety. It was a precursor of things to come.
After getting camp set up, we took a walk into Fort Jefferson in the pouring rain. The first bird we ran into was a Hooded Warbler (year bird), followed by a redstart, then a Clay-colored Sparrow...then Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks, a flock of Tricolored Herons, and hundreds of Gray Catbirds. Catbirds seemed to be ravaging the place...practically every tree had its own catbird flock. Finally the storm let up, and I was free to bird unrestrained...to put it lightly, it was intense. I knew things were going to be good when we walked right up to a Philadelphia Vireo (year bird), which paid us no attention at all. There were a lot of birds around, which I finally realized was a result of the storm.
The next day was almost just as birdy (another storm rolled in overnight), but with clear skies things really mellowed on days 3 and 4, although it was not hard to figure out that birds were arriving and leaving throughout the day regardless of the weather. I watched birds like Cave Swallow (year bird), Chimney Swift (year bird), and White-winged Dove fly in off the ocean, only to never be seen again. As always, its great to watch migration in action.
A Black-throated Blue Warbler was one of many birds that caused carnage to my adrenal gland. This was our campsite buddy for a day.
This was the one and only Veery I saw while out there. I like it's facial expression. Despite the sizeable thrush flock that flew over as I arrived, the only thrushes present were this Veery and a few Swainson's.
The campground turned out to be one of the best spots on the island. At one point I watched a Swainson's Thrush hop past my feet and into our tent. A male Black-throated Blue Warbler spent a whole day in and around our campsite, brushing me with its wing as it flew past at one point. Ovenbirds strutted under the picnic table while we sat playing cards. Hooded, Canada (year bird), Worm-eating, Blackburnian, Orange-crowned, Magnolia, Palm, American Redstart, etc. all popped in to our campsite as well...not the campground as a whole, mind you, just at our little campsite. A couple of Piping Plovers roosted with the small shorebird flock at the coaling dock, a stone's throw away.
This crippling adult male Hooded Warbler was one of the brightest birds at Garden Key during my visit.
All in all it was a completely successful trip. My face was left badly disfigured, almost completely melted off by the avian brilliance, and I have had to spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery since then. Vireo Vita and Booby Brittany had an amazing time snorkeling, and from shore I was happy to see enormous groupers (bigger than people!), parrotfish and angelfish, barracudas, and even the fabled Tortuga Crocodile, which I understand has Loch Ness Monster status among Key West locals (undoctored photos to come soon). In 4 days I tallied 77 species of birds, including 21 species of warblers...pretty good for a 400 X 500 meter island! It would be awesome to get to explore Bush Key or Loggerhead Key, but that's not something many birders get to do.
Sandwich and Royal Terns roost on one of the the old coaling docks. Both coaling docks are quality snorkel sites as well. Bush Island is in the background; that's where the Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies nest in season.
A Northern Parula takes a break from moth-catching to collect itself.
I would definitely recommend camping on Garden Key, although you have to bring all of your supplies (they do have bathrooms though)...but that's just part of the fun if you ask me. Also, the Yankee Freedom III is docked at Garden Key most of the day, and you are welcome to buy lunch, beer, etc. on board, so you are not really 100% roughing it. It's really nice before and after the boat is around though, because there are fewer people around. Biting insects were few and far between.
Birders should check the campground, the trees inside the fort, and the patch of vegetation that lies north of the campground, outside the fort. Both coaling docks should be checked, and don't forget to frequently look up for incoming wayward migrants. Birds come and go throughout the day so it's a good idea to do the rounds regularly (what else do you have to do?). Hope and prepare for rain. As of my visit the famous water fountain in the fort courtyard was not being used in the fall...Booby Brittany overheard a park employee saying something ridiculous about leaving it off so migrant birds don't try to winter there and die.
The conclusion: the Dry Tortugas have huge potential during fall migration. Of course, now I want to go back in spring...