Seabirds and Storm Waifs

I could tell from the gradually lightening sky that the sun had risen, but the gloomy, gray conditions shrouding the docks kept it hidden from sight. With my poncho pulled tight over my head and my gear, I shuffled onto to Yankee Freedom III with over a hundred other groggy travelers. Our destination: Dry Tortugas National Park, a small archipelago 70 miles from Key West. Despite the name of the islands, we were all prepared for a wet day. The original forecast had called for continuous rain and waves of thunderstorms, but predictions improved in the hours leading up to the ship’s departure. It was a very drizzly morning on the ride out, with scattered precipitation the whole way. I quickly identified the other birders on board, introducing myself and beginning the traveling seawatch from the top deck. We spied a handful frigatebirds and gannets, but the overall numbers of seabirds observed were low. I did, however, manage to get my binoculars on a distant sulid with a clean line between a brown neck and white belly, marking it as a Brown Booby. Also notable were occasional sightings of migrant warblers, tiny, tenacious travelers that passed our boat on their way north over the Gulf of Mexico. At some point along the way, I noticed that we were being followed.

I pointed out the warbler tailing us to my fellow nature enthusiasts, and it was clear that the bird was attempting to land on the boat. For 10 harrowing minutes, we watched as the mystery migrant struggled to catch the fast-moving ship, repeatedly drawing close and getting blown off course by the slipstream. The bird was determined, and we all cheered when the soaking wet critter crashed down onto the rails. At close range, I was finally able to identify it as a male Prairie Warbler, drenched nearly beyond recognition. He hopped around the deck, finally finding refuge and rest under an unoccupied seat. It’s amazing to think of the untold miles that have passed under this little bird’s wings on its journey to and from the breeding grounds. I was glad that we could give him a bit of a lift, even if our drop off point was still a long way from the mainland.

It was clear that we were getting close to our destination when the sea around us came alive with seabirds. After the relatively quiet journey out, the sight of these hordes was especially dramatic. We passed several small, sandy keys before pulling up to the dock at the Garden Key. The impressive, well-fortified Fort Jefferson dominates the landscape on this speck of land, which covers only 14 acres in total. The rain began to dissipate, and for the remainder of the day we only experienced a few brief, weak showers and otherwise decent conditions.

Dozens of Magnificent Frigatebirds hung motionless in the air above the fort. Despite the difficulty of photographing black birds against a light gray sky, I couldn’t resist making an effort due to the proximity and numbers of these charismatic creatures. Frigates are among the most talented flyers in the avian world, blessed with remarkably low wing loading due to a light, 3-pound frame supported by a wingspan that can exceed 7 feet. This allows them to float effortlessly and bend the wind to their will, aided by a forked tail which is constantly adjusted to provide extra lift and maneuverability. These birds are capable of sleeping in midair as they ride thermals and ocean breezes on long distance flights. Frigatebirds use their aerial prowess to pirate food from other birds and snag prey from the surface of the water without stopping. They cut a pretty imposing figure as they circle in search of their next victim.

I’m a huge fan of frigatebirds. It’s hard not to love their striking silhouettes and swashbuckling strategies. I would’ve been perfectly content to spend all of my time on Garden Key with these charming rogues, but there was plenty more to see and explore.

Dry Tortugas National Park offers two primary attractions for visiting birders. First, the islands are a great place to see seabirds. There are plenty of pelicans, gulls, and terns lounging at the docks, rather pedestrian but still pleasant. I added Sandwich Tern to my year list as we were pulling up to the island, and the omnipresent Brown Pelicans were quite photogenic.

The main draws are the species that breed nowhere else in North America. The national park provides nesting grounds for Sooty Terns, Brown Noddies, and Masked Boobies in addition to the Magnificent Frigatebirds. Although the frigates are commonly seen along the coast of mainland Florida, the other specialty seabirds are difficult to find away from these colonies. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Sooties and noddies were swirling above Bush Key, which is connected to Garden Key by a small sandbar. Access is wisely prohibited during the breeding season, but I still got great views of these new lifers from the nearby vantage points around the fort.

The second famous aspect of the Dry Tortugas is its status as a migrant trap. Birds crossing the Gulf from the Neotropics often wind up landing on these far flung islands to rest and refuel. There’s not much in the way of food and water, but Fort Jefferson’s courtyard offers foliage for refuge and foraging as well as a freshwater drip. On this foggy, wet day, there were plenty of additional sources for rehydrating as well. The activity around the trees and shrubberies of Garden Key was nonstop.

Orchard Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and over a dozen kinds of warblers were among the 45 species tallied during my 4 hours on the island. A few Northern Rough-winged Swallows joined the Barn Swallows coursing low over the moat in pursuit of insects.

The Tortugas evidently have a few terrestrial inhabitants as well. The circle of life unfolded at my feet as anoles squabbled over lunch.

Birds of prey were also on the hunt overhead. I couldn’t believe the numbers of raptors slicing through the sky above the courtyard. Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, and multiple Merlins had found the island while migrating north, joining the local Peregrine Falcon in terrorizing the haggard songbirds. The smaller birds were wise to keep to the relative safety of vegetative cover.

A passel of Cattle Egrets foraged boldly on the lawn, safe from the lightweight raptors and either ignoring or ignorant of the Peregrine. These birds are no strangers to open ocean crossings, having naturally colonized the Americas from Africa in the 19th century. They were probably helped along the way by some pretty powerful storms and winds…given the history of the species it’s no surprise that the periodic light rain during my visit had little impact on their behavior.

I was surprised to see Ruddy Turnstones acting with similar brazen fearlessness. These scurrying shorebirds typically stick to the immediate coast, where they flip rocks and seaweed to look for morsels underneath. Apparently, the birds visiting the park had learned that there were plenty of morsels to be found under the picnic tables. Just after the other tourists finished lunch, the turnstones all scrambled over like windup toys to feast on the fallen food.

Garden Key was positively infested with Hermit Crabs. I repeatedly mistook their rustling in the leaf litter for the actions of foraging birds. I was surprised that someone was able to locate a Swainson’s Warbler in the brush amidst all of the false alarms. I also managed to get my first look at a Portuguese Man o’ War floating along the edge of the moat, but I couldn’t find the fabled local crocodile. Apparently a lone individual has been living at the Dry Tortugas since a storm blew it out to sea, but it tends to make itself scarce when the boats bring visitors to the islands.

The spirit of camaraderie between like-minded adventurers is one of my favorite aspects of birding. We all shared our sightings with one another as we raced to find all of the goodies hidden around the island. It felt a bit like a friendly competition to sniff out the best birds. The couple that spotted the Swainson’s Warbler immediately called the others over, and a group of guys told me they’d flushed a Chuck-will’s-widow inside the fort. I followed their directions and made sure other passing birders were aware of the opportunity to see this secretive nightbird. I returned serve by pointing folks in the direction of White-winged Dove and Gray Kingbird, both hanging out close to a stunning male Hooded Warbler and a cooperative Ovenbird.

As the end of our time on Garden Key drew nearer, I spent some time exploring the architecture of Fort Jefferson. The sturdy walls and battle-based equipment were pretty interesting in their own right. Climbing the stairs to the upper level brought me closer to the wheeling frigatebirds and gave me a great view of the surrounding water.

I repeatedly turned my optics on the ruins of the coaling dock on the northern side of the island. The dilapidated pilings are popular with the local seabirds, and they are known among birders as a hangout spot for oceangoing rarities. Single Black Noddies have been seen among their numerous brown cousins at this location, and one had been reported a few days prior. I’ve seen the species previously in Hawaii, but I would’ve loved to get reacquainted and share it with those who needed the lifer. I never did find one, but I noticed two dark terns that looked subtly different from the innumerable Sooties. The wings seemed to be a shade lighter than the black cap, and when one bird shook it revealed extensive white coloration on its tail streamers. I snapped some distant photos and notified as many birders as I could about what I suspected I’d found, but our departure time was fast approaching. Several individuals dashed over to the docks to take a look, making it back to the ship just in time. Our pictures later confirmed that the paler backs weren’t a trick of the light, as well as showing a white border between gray and black on the back of the neck. Bridled Terns are a great find at the Dry Tortugas, partly due to relative rarity and largely thanks to their similarity to their ubiquitous cousins. Not a bad end to my time on the island!

On our way home, we cruised past the nesting colony of Masked Boobies on Hospital Key, ever so slightly closer than we’d passed on the way in. One individual flew by and provided us with somewhat better looks than the white-and-black spots on the sandbar, which was greatly appreciated. The ride back to Key West, unfortunately, took us directly into the strong easterly wind. We bounced and bobbed a lot more than the morning leg of the journey, which made photography and seawatching a challenge. I was still pleased to see flying fish skimming the waves ahead of our advancing boat, and a handful of Loggerhead Sea Turtles surfaced relatively close to the ship. We returned to port in the early evening, and I was wholly satisfied with my journey to the Tortugas.

With the birds behind me, it was time to hit the town. Key West is famous for its food, drink, and atmosphere, and I wasn’t leaving without enjoying myself. The Eaton Street Seafood Market was my chosen site for dinner, and I did not regret my decision. Stone crab claws with Key Lime mustard, conch chowder, and a Holy Mackerel brew brought a perfect end to a perfect day. I found a few more tasty drinks as I wandered the docks after dark, and I slept very, very well that night.

Year List Update, April 13 – 227 Species (+ Brown Booby, Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Masked Booby, Sandwich Tern, Orchard Oriole, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Barn Swallow, Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Chuck-will’s-widow, Bridled Tern)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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6 Responses to Seabirds and Storm Waifs

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