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Dry Tortugas National Park: April 2005

A Weekend in the Keys
This is a trip report from a long weekend spent in Key West and Dry Tortugas National Park.  There are also three photo galleries from the trip, which you can access by clicking the links below.
Warblers                  Seabirds                  More Birds
You can also view a larger image of any of the pictures in the trip report by clicking on them.

Florida Keys Trip Report - April 29 to May 1, 2005
On the weekend of April 29, Kristin and I decided to take a long weekend in the sun, and we made our way south to the Florida Keys.  Our goal: to return to the most fascinating place we had ever seen, Dry Tortugas National Park, which we had first visited in April, 2003.  Vacation days were arranged, and immediately upon landing in Ft. Lauderdale, we headed south to the Overseas Highway, following the setting sun to where all roads end - Key West.
Having made the required reservations, the morning of Friday April 29 found Kristin and I at Land's End Harbor in Key West, ready to board the ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park (hereafter, DTNP), which lies 70 miles to the west of Key West.  We had a tent and supplies on hand, and we planned to camp at the park that night and return on Saturday afternoon.  It was the height of spring migration at the park, and we were joined by a dozen other birders from as far away as Utah.

Kentucky Warbler at Ft. Zachary Taylor SP

The ferry ride to the park started off well when I spotted two roseate terns in the outer harbor.  We were literally bubbling over with excitement - the sun was out, the birds were close, and all was right with the world.  So it took a minute or two for the horrific facts to sink in when, about two miles into the trip, the naturalist came over the loudspeaker and announced that there was some sort of engine failure on the ferry and that we were turning back to Key West.  There would be no trip to the park today.
Shock and disgust sum up the next two hours fairly nicely.
Back in Key West, we made arrangements to try again the next day, and suddenly found ourselves in the Capital of the Conch Republic with no plans and lots of time.  We decided there were worse places we could be "stranded."
So we sat on the beach and ate key lime pie from the Blonde Giraffe pie shop, and basically watched the world and the birds go by.  (The Blonde Giraffe's recipe was voted "The Best Key Lime Pie in Key West," and this is no joke - if you are a fan of key lime pie as we are, this really is the best stuff anywhere.)  We did manage to fit in a little real birding at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West, where we were treated to a few dozen species of Neotropical migrants, including a nice Kentucky warbler, lots of blue grosbeaks, and black-whiskered vireos, among others.  We searched diligently for the recently reported red-legged honeycreeper there, but despite a curious description of a bluish bird only Kristin saw that wasn't really honeycreeper-ish anyway, we did not find it.

The endangered, tiny Key Deer, smaller than some dogs!

We also decided to follow up on a second-hand report of a silent but probable La Sagra's flycatcher on Big Pine Key, but despite a 90-minute search, we came up empty.  Of course, typically, the day after we left to come back to Pennsylvania, a "good" La Sagra's flycatcher, and a thick-billed vireo just for good measure, were both discovered in Ft. Lauderdale just a few miles from the airport!  ARRGH.  Anyway, during our foray to Big Pine Key, we did get very nice views of four different key deer, a miniature race of the white-tailed deer endemic to Big Pine Key that is about the size of a large dog, perhaps only slightly bigger than a full-size golden retriever.  They are neat little things!  Today, most of Big Pine Key is part of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, consequently, the deer have become used to human presence and are not easily disturbed.  So it was not hard to get some very nice pictures of these tiny deer just by sitting in the car and waiting for them to walk by.
Later that evening we made our way to the Key West Airport, and as dusk was settling, in the surrounding din of airport noise pollution, I was able to discern the stuttering four-note "pik-pi-pik-it" of an ANTILLEAN NIGHTHAWK, our first life bird of the trip.  Earlier in the day on the DTNP ferry we had commiserated with the similarly disappointed group of birders from Utah, so they were quite happy when they drove around the corner and found me announcing the nighthawk.  Eventually it came to our side of the airport and made several close passes, calling all the while.  What a treat!
The next morning (Saturday), we arrived at Land's End Harbor and again queued up to board the ferry bound for DTNP.  This time, we left Key West with a measure of trepidation, for our "extra day" that we allowed for unforeseen circumstances was lost on the previous day's delay.  You see, DTNP is very remote, and the camping there is primitive.  There are no cell phones, no refrigerators, no roads, no nothing.  There are two fast catamarans that make daily runs to the park, but if for whatever reason they cannot make a run on a given day, any campers on the park that were counting on the ferry for a ride home are basically stranded for a day unless they can find their way back with someone else, perhaps with a seaplane tour company or even a private citizen that is traveling in their own boat.
Now that we had to wait until Saturday to even begin our journey, should weather or other boat troubles cause us to be stranded an extra day, we would miss flights, get charged extra for our rental car, and generally be out of contact with the world for an extra day.  This would have been rather difficult and would have caused people back home to start to worry.  Still, we thought, if we did get stuck, there are worse places to be, and the world wouldn't end.
So we pressed on.  This time, the ferry's engines delivered, and we sped west at thirty knots to the turquoise shores of Dry Tortugas National Park.
If you have birded with me, you have probably heard me comment about DTNP at one time or another.  Personally, I find spring in DTNP to be the single most incredible place and time to birdwatch in the continental United States, at least, of the places that I've been.

Looking out from one of Ft. Jefferson's gun ports

The history of the Dry Tortugas is long and well documented... to attempt to keep a story spanning 150 years "short," DTNP is comprised of a series of constantly changing small islands (today, there are seven) that are the westernmost in the Florida Keys reef tract.  On one of these islands, Garden Key, the enormous 19th-century relic Fort Jefferson still exists, a massive construction of brick and sand that rises up incongruously from the sea and swallows up most of Garden Key.  An astounding half-mile in circumference, the hexagonal fort was constructed between 1846 and 1884 to command the shipping lane into and out of the Gulf of Mexico that runs between Cuba and the Florida Keys, as well as to provide a harbor and refueling station for both the ships and the soldiers charged with the Gulf's defense.  It was a Union post during the Civil War, but it never saw battle neither in the Civil War nor at any other time, and due to various difficulties, the fort was never fully completed before it was ultimately abandoned by the military in the very early 20th century.  The main structure of the fort was nearly completed and still stands today, almost exactly as it did when construction was halted in 1884, though the interior buildings (barracks, etc.) have all burned, crumbled, or otherwise been razed.
Today, the fort serves as the makeshift headquarters of DTNP, and there is a small National Park staff that lives there year-round in modernized rooms built into the fort's massive perimeter wall.  This "modern" section of the fort is off-limits to all visitors except in extreme emergency.  Visitors are allowed everywhere else on the island, though, including inside and even on top of the fort wall, sixty feet above the fort's moat below.  It is an incredible place to explore.  Inside the fort is a grassy parade ground of several acres, with scattered trees and shrubs, and a tiny man-made water fixture that serves as the only permanent source of fresh water anywhere on any of the seven islands.  From their viewpoint, Garden Key is nothing less than an oasis in a maritime desert for the hungry and exhausted songbirds headed north across the Gulf, and each year thousands of migrants stop over there.  Outside the fort is a stretch of white sand beach that attracts snorkelers and shorebirds alike, and there is a small primitive campground in among a cluster of coconut palms that we would call home for that night.

Spring at Bush Key

The thoroughly fascinating history and architecture of the place aside (and it really is fascinating), it is the one-two punch of spring landbird migration and the famous colony of seabirds that draws hordes of birders to DTNP in April and May each year.  The migration fallouts are renowned, for these little keys are the only land for hundreds of miles in that section of the Gulf of Mexico, and the birds that stop there, focused on fueling up for the next leg of their journey, are very approachable and often very, very numerous.  It is not uncommon to record twenty species of warblers just inside the fort alone, and to find twenty-four in a day, all crammed into about ten acres, is not unheard of.
As for the tropical seabird colony... well, that is a sight you simply cannot find anywhere else within the borders of the United States.  Each February, tens of thousands of sooty terns return to Bush Key, and with them come a lesser number of brown noddies, which both quickly take up residence for the season.  Together they spend the next six months wheeling around the place in a fury of motion and sound, and suddenly, in late September, they all disappear, almost all at once, leaving behind only the sound of the wind moving through the palms.
DTNP also supports the only nesting colony of magnificent frigatebirds and masked boobies in the continental US, on Long Key and Hospital Key, respectively.
For campers and everyday tourists that arrive on a ferry from Key West, only Garden Key and Fort Jefferson are accessible during a spring visit, but anyone with a boat can visit any of the seven keys whenever they wish, except for Bush, Long, and Hospital Keys which are closed for half of each year during the seabird nesting cycle.  Several organized birding tours charter their own boats to tour the park for several days at a time, but for Kristin and I, Garden Key alone would be more than enough for an overnight visit.

Magnificent Frigatebird

It was exactly as I remembered it.  Upon docking outside the fort, the birders (us and the Utah crew, plus a couple from Europe and a few others) and non-birders alike stared up in awe at the dozens of magnificent frigatebirds hanging effortlessly above us like kites in the wind.  They stay so perfectly still and even-keeled that people seeing them for the first time sometimes wonder if they are even real, of if they are somehow tethered to the ground by an invisible string.
The last time Kristin and I came to the park, it was as standard tourists for a so-called "day trip."  Essentially, on a day trip, you take the ferry from Key West for 2.5 hours, disembark on Garden Key for four or five hours (during which you are free to explore for birds or history or anything else, and perhaps even go snorkeling), and then you steam back to Key West for another 2.5 hours.  For a birder on a day trip in such a marvelous place, the fort is more of a pressure cooker than anything else, as one feels compelled to rush around to the three key locations: inside and around the fort for migrants, the fence at Bush Key for the seabird colony, and the old north coaling dock for a roosting black noddy or something better.  There is hardly time to think on a day trip, let alone enjoy the place.  I smiled when the Utah crew all ran off the boat and into the fort, because I remembered feeling the same thing they did the first time I was there.
For Kristin and I, though, this visit was much more enjoyable.  We leisurely claimed our campsite, set up shop, ate lunch, and wandered slowly around looking for songbirds.  It was paradise.  Inside the fort, I quietly caused a stampede for the Utah folks when I announced that I had found a yellow-throated warbler on the opposite side of the parade ground.  It was fun to see them charging around, knowing that for many of them, they were piling up life birds by the dozens and loving every minute of it.

Yellow-throated Warbler inside Ft. Jefferson

For our part, we took our time, and let the day set the pace.  After the tourists on day trips left, Kristin went snorkeling with one of the other campers/birders, and I stayed in the fort and continued to dig up migrants.  It is fascinating to see some of our familiar songbirds in this setting, where they are completely different birds than the ones we know.  The best example is the ovenbird.  Here in Pennsylvania, when on territory, an ovenbird is an audibly conspicuous but extremely elusive little brown and white bird of the forests.  But at Garden Key, the bird becomes inverted... silent, but ready to hop onto your head if you sit still long enough.  Here, the ovenbirds march out of the underbrush, almost with a swagger, and stride their way around the grass in search of food.  I saw the same behavior this winter in Texas, where I barely recognized a very bold and forthcoming ovenbird that was wintering at the Fontera Audubon Society's feeding station, pigging out and prancing around, posing in the open for the cameras.  The Kentucky warbler, a similarly shy bird here in Pennsylvania, was also found to be very sociable with us both in Key West and on Garden Key.
Some birds, though, don't change their attitudes on their wintering grounds or during migration.  At Garden Key, it was thoroughly enjoyable to watch the shy and reclusive the yellow-billed cuckoos, literally a dozen at a time, all try to hide in the same tree.  But on Garden Key, there are only a few dozen trees to begin with.  So the cuckoos are never very hard to find, but they do their best to avoid contact anyway, and their day generally becomes an exercise in flushing from one tree to the next, whether they are provoked to do so or not.  Personally, I think they are more afraid of a marauding accipiter than anything else (Garden Key gets its share of raptor migrants too), and yellow-billed cuckoo is a favored accipiter prey, even here in PA.
It is also fascinating to watch the migrants make the best out of whatever situation they find.  For instance, a puddle of rainwater at the bottom of a old rusty boat served as a welcome place to stop and bathe for a magnolia warbler, a yellow warbler, a summer tanager, and a northern waterthrush, all in the ten minutes I stood at the boat's side.  And others took to foraging along the oceanside itself, picking at the seaweed and feasting on the tiny critters they managed to dig up.  The resilience displayed by these little birds is nothing short of awesome.

Northern Waterthrush - looking for a hitch on a rusty boat?

In yet another gripping spectacle, back at the campground, one of the campers had a cooler full of ice, which he unplugged to allow the water to drain as the ice melted.  Garden Key has a very tame and approachable population of ruddy turnstones, as well as the expected laughing gulls, etc.  As the cooler baked in the sun, it was quite the show to watch the turnstones fight with each other to claim the dripping cooler spout, circling around each other and arguing amongst themselves, sneaking quick sips of ice-cold fresh water.  Every once in awhile a laughing gull would come in and clean house, and the turnstones would all wait patiently for it to leave, only to resume their squabbling.
Through it all, though, it was not hard to remember that however sociable the birds appeared, deep down this was a very stressful time for them.  Even though the bulk of them do quite well in making DTNP a successful stop on an arduous trek, many of them are only there because they felt desperate enough to stop at the first sight of land they happened upon.  So we made sure to give every bird all the space it wanted, and encouraged others to do the same.  Truly, in this place, the birder doesn't even have to try.  The birds come to you.
Afternoon on Saturday was best described as idyllic.  The temperature was in the low 80s, the sun was shining, and a peaceful tropical breeze kept things cool.  After the noisy tourists pack up their snorkeling gear and disposable cameras and leave, Garden Key becomes very quiet and peaceful.  The hermit crabs begin to poke their way out of their hiding places and the park staff comes out to enjoy their little slice of heaven and sometimes even socialize with the campers.

Everyone agreed this was likely an Antillean Nighthawk

It is at this time that the birding tour groups in the area return to Garden Key, having avoided the hords of tourists by whiling away the midday on Loggerhead Key or perhaps watching the masked boobies on Hospital Key, and on Saturday afternoon, we were greeted by Larry Manfredi's tour of about ten participants.  They brought us up to speed on everything they had in the morning before the ferry arrived that we had missed to that point, including two roosting nighthawks, one of which was pretty obviously a common but the other of which many believed to be an Antillean.  I put them on a third nighthawk they had not yet seen, which seemed perfectly intermediate between common and Antillean, and a very nice discussion of the finer points of their identification ensued.  In the end most people (I among them) agreed that the one that had all the good characteristics of an Antillean was almost certainly an actual Antillean, but since no bird was ever heard calling, it was left to each individual lister as to what they were comfortable writing down on their lists.  The "Antillean" was very cooperative, and had taken to roosting right out in the open on the crumbled brick foundation of the old barracks.  I got several excellent photos of all three birds for my own future reference, although since I couldn't definitively identify any of them to species, I don't know what good they do as a reference.  As for what I listed under "nighthawks" that day, well, I wasn't too concerned, because we had a very good Antillean (and three commons) in Key West the night before.
The rest of the afternoon was basically an exercise in alternating between three things: sitting quietly and photographing warblers at the water fixture, watching for a black noddy to come in to roost at the north coaling dock, and simply relaxing on top of the fort and soaking it all in.  While on top of the fort, occasionally a frigatebird will sail to within just a few feet of you, calmly give you a sideways glance, and drift off out over the water.  We were treated to this sight several times, and came to fully understand why they are referred to as "magnificent."

Sunset in Paradise

That evening the sunset was spectacular, and later we roasted s'mores at our campsite did our best not to step on hermit crabs in the dark.  After complete darkness, we walked the seawall around the moat to the side of the fort opposite the campground and the park residences, that is, to the quietest and darkest side of the island.  The stars came out in force, and we laid on our backs and started up at the heavens.  Occasionally, a sooty tern would drift by and give its squawking contact call, completely invisible except for its voice.  I found myself almost overwhelmed to have come to be in such a place, essentially sitting on a brick sidewalk at the very edge of the ancient sea, staring at a moonless black sky filled with millions of stars.  It wasn't hard to block it all out - the fort, the boats, the campground, and instead just focus on the stars and the warm tropical breezes, and listen to the sooty terns calling to each other as they have for thousands of years.  It wasn't hard at all to imagine that we had gone back in time a hundred centuries... the birds, the beach, the stars, they were all still here, millennia later.  It was ethereal.
Overnight, a weather front stalled out over the Florida peninsula, and with it, excessively humid air and cloudy skies came to DTNP.  A little before first light the next morning, I could still see stars, but by dawn, it was gray and overcast, and there was a thick coating of condensation over everything, so much so that the ranger asked me the next morning if it had rained the previous night.  But it was only humidity from this new weather system.  By mid-morning, it was drizzling.  At first I was somewhat anxious that the weather was worse in Key West than the simple drizzle we were seeing, and that the boat would not make the run to DTNP to pick us up.  But the weather remained relatively mild and the ferry pulled up at 10:30 as scheduled.  We breathed a bit of a sigh of relief, because we didn't really have good provisions for another entire day.

A Brown Noddy on a gray day

I had intended to go snorkeling that morning, but the prospect of getting all salty and smelly to snorkel under gray skies was less than appealing, so we of course opted to bird for migrants instead.  Overnight, a new set of birds arrived, some of the birds from Saturday had departed, and others still remained in exactly the same places.  I spent some time photographing, but unfortunately, especially in the case of the seabirds, the lighting was not good, but I did still manage to get some decent shots.  The seabird photography was doubly disappointing, because they tend to fly closer to the fence on Bush Key in the morning than they do in the afternoon, so I was able to get much closer flight shots Sunday morning than were happening on Saturday afternoon, but the lighting was quite poor and the pictures came out mostly gray.
But, I did find two exciting birds on Sunday.  The first was a "Caribbean" short-eared owl that Kristin and I inadvertently flushed from a tree inside the fort.  It flew to another tree where it remained until we left, and I was able to point it out to the fresh influx of day-tripping birders later in the morning.  Even better was a second "Caribbean" short-eared that flew across the interior of the fort and landed on the ground.  I was able to get excellent photographs of this second bird before it flew off and landed on the restricted portion of the fort roof.
Later, while Kristin decided to take the official fort tour that discusses its history and construction, a gentleman from Arkansas and I were discussing the recent ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery while scoping the north coaling dock, when a BLACK NODDY came in and lit on one of the old pilings!  Its smaller size and darker color were evident even in the relatively poor light.  We both whooped it up, but not more than ten seconds later a brown noddy evicted it from its perch and it took to the sea again.  We watched it flight for a minute or so before losing it in the mass of seagoing noddies near Bush Key.  Needless to say the other birders on the park that day were not happy to hear that news from us, because as far as I know, it did not return to the coaling dock before it was time for the ferry to leave.  It was my second and final life bird of the trip, that is, until the AOU decides to split the short-eared owl complex.

"Caribbean" Short-eared Owl

The rain turned from a drizzle to a steady drumbeat after 1 PM, and Kristin and I were ready to go home.  We had seen just about every bird available in the park, and did not have the energy to wander around in the rain to try for any more.  We toured around the interior of the fort where it was dry, and when 2:30 came around, we packed up onto the ferry and headed home.
The ferry itself offers a chance at some interesting birds.  Often, when there are several birders present on the boat, the captain can be talked into making close passes at the park boundary markers (large buoys) where brown boobies roost, and at Hospital Key, where the birders can get reasonable binocular views of the masked boobies.  The captain passed both on our trips, and in transit we also were able to spot two pomarine jaegers.  I spotted two bridled terns as well when most of the other birders were in the cabin.  I didn't have the heart to tell them what they missed when they came back out onto the deck.  We also had a few more brown boobies while out at sea.  The ferry isn't good for much else... every once in a long while someone may find a wayward Audubon's shearwater on the ride, but the water along the route simply isn't deep enough to expect the pelagic species except by accident.  Terns and the occasional jaeger is about all there is to see, and we got a glimpse of them all.
That night we drove back up the keys toward Ft. Lauderdale (stopping again at the Blonde Giraffe, of course), and promised each other that this would not be the last time we ventured to Garden Key.  It truly is one of those special kinds of places everyone should try to see at least once in their lifetime.  For us, twice is not going to be enough.
All told we tallied 101 species between DTNP and Key West, with a few added in near Ft. Lauderdale and along the Overseas Highway.  The final trip count was 125, with two life species.  We had 24 species of warbler, with 22 at Garden Key and 13 at Key West.

If you would like more information on Dry Tortugas National Park, check out the National Park Service's official website.  Or Google "Dry Tortugas National Park" for a wealth of informitive sites and some outstanding photography.
Click the links below to view photo galleries from this trip:
Warblers             Seabirds              More Birds
All content on this website, including all photos and narrative, are the copyright of Geoff Malosh, 2005.

Unless explicitly indicated otherwise in the photo caption, all photos on this website were taken by and are 2003-2012 by Geoff Malosh. Unauthorized usage of these photographs for any purpose is strictly forbidden. If you are interested in using any photo for publication or if you are interested in purchasing a print, contact me at pomarine -AT- earthlink -DOT- net.