Birdwatching at Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida
Waystation for spring migrants and home of Brown Noddies, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the top birding destinations in the United States
Published: October 23, 2009
|Pacing a pier in Key West, Florida, in late April, I realize that all that stands between me and three nights on a tropical island is a boat ride. Doesn't sound so bad, does it?|
Two and a half hours and 70 miles across open ocean lies Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the top birding destinations in the United States. But here's the problem. Boats and I don't get along. When they begin to toss, well… so do I.
Before bellying up to quayside, I breakfasted on non-greasy bagels and non-greasy orange juice. I'm wearing those stretchy bands with the balls that stimulate my inner wrists. I'd stocked up on Dramamine, ginger root, and ginger ale. I would have invited Ginger Baker along if I thought it would help.
But it won't. Nothing will. Of all the methods for combating seasickness, real or superstitious, I've found that only one works without fail.
Stay off the water.
But that's just not an option. Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the few U.S. island parks. Unless you can swim like a parrotfish, the only way to reach it is via seaplane or boat - either private or commercial. Since I swim more like - well - a parrot, and can't afford the seaplane, here I am at 6:30 a.m. with backpack, Match Light charcoal, a gallon of bottled water per day, and my voodoo wrist bands, waiting for my ship to go out.
My ship is the Yankee Freedom II, one of two general ferries out of Key West. It's a catamaran with twin bows that stick out like the lobes of a manta ray. As we depart, I crowd the railing to watch Least Terns and Brown Pelicans fishing the harbor.
Minutes out of port, we're intersecting our first seabirds: eagle-size Northern Gannets strafing past in ones and twos.Just before we reach the Tortugas, the seabird action intensifies. Nine storm-petrels race the boat. A Sooty Tern passes to starboard. Two Brown Boobies cross the bow.
Clouds of seabirds
On the pilings as we dock are Whimbrels, Sandwich and Royal Terns, Brown Pelicans, and more Brown Boobies. And in the sky to the east, thousands of other breeding seabirds rise like clouds of spindly bats over Garden and Bush Keys.
The park is the only place in the U.S. where Sooty Tern, Magnificent Frigatebird, Brown Noddy, and Masked Booby all nest. Breeding begins in early February and wraps up by July. Sometimes even rarer Black Noddies, Bridled Terns, or Red-footed Boobies turn up in the crowd.
And both inside and outside Fort Jefferson, the park's massive centerpiece, hordes of migrant songbirds fresh from the Caribbean crossing touch down, from late March to mid-May, to scarf a bellyful of bugs before skipping on to the coasts of Florida or Alabama. Once on the mainland, the birds will disperse for nesting locations across eastern North America. Birders exhibit a kind of reverse migration, flocking from Montana, California, Vermont, and Missouri to converge upon Garden Key.
As I commandeer the last available campsite - an unshaded table shunned by everyone who came before - birds bounce in and out of the shrubby buttonwood trees. I spy a Cape May Warbler, a Blackpoll, a Palm. "There's a Black-throated Blue Warbler next to the picnic table," someone squeals.
My tent lists to left like it'll collapse beneath the weight of a tropical high-pressure system, but who cares? I grab my binocs and start racking up warblers. When I'm satisfied that I've taken inventory of the campground goodies, I race for the fort.
Camping is one way to see the Dry Tortugas. However, most people make a day trip of it. The ferries drop off passengers at Garden Key at about 10 a.m. and depart the island around 3 p.m., giving birders five hours to round up the day's bird booty. Campers get a max of three nights to soak up the tropical fun.
Tortugas is Spanish for turtles, and the islands were full of them in the 1500s when Ponce de Leon arrived. People come ashore now only to hunt birds and reefs, not turtle meat, and upon landing, they discover the meaning of the word dry. It's the classic "water, water everywhere" quandary. Although the island is encircled by sea, no stream, spring, or seep exists to slake its perpetual thirst.
Garden Key, the centerpiece of the national park, is about the size of a big city block, and the neighborhood is dominated by Fort Jefferson, which never saw combat but was used as a prison during and after the Civil War. Its red brick shell, more or less intact, is famous for once having interred Dr. Samuel Mudd, who aided Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth and was later pardoned.
Trees ripe with songbirds
Crossing the moat and passing through the only gate in the fort's wall, I enter the orchard that gave the key its name. Birders in ones and twos are frozen in place across the lawn gawking at 12-foot-high trees ripe with birds.
"I've never seen so many Yellow-billed Cuckoos in my life," somebody says as one swoops from the nearest treetop. Out pops a Blue Grosbeak, a Red-eyed Vireo, an Orchard Oriole. Gray-cheeked Thrushes graze the lawn, and a Gray Kingbird stands atop a snag.
Packs of Bobolinks and Summer Tanagers skulk the grassy ramparts, and above them all, Sharp-shinned and Broad-winged Hawks, Merlins, and a Peregrine Falcon prowl. Everyone, it seems, is feasting on the bounty, including several tour groups.
Word is already spreading that a single Black Noddy has infiltrated the mob of Brown Noddies at the coal dock on the north side of the fort. And I learn that a Red-footed Booby is slumming at adjacent Long Key. Every day at 5 p.m., it claims the same perch across the water. Adrian Binns, senior leader of Wildside Nature Tours and a member of five winning World Series of Birding teams, helps to put things into perspective.
"To get these two birds on the same day is an absolute miracle," he says in a tone appropriate for church. Black Noddy and Red-footed Booby are both lifers for me, so I'm feeling touched by God myself.
The best time to visit the Tortugas, Binns tells me, is the beginning of April through the first week of May. Even then, it can be hit or miss. "The north winds hold everything up. If the wind turns around to the south, most of these things will head out. Were you here yesterday? There were 15 birds!" he exclaims, his British accent spiking. "But you can't have a bad day here because of the frigatebirds and the Brown Noddies."
I tag along with his giddy entourage for a while, then break off to climb the spiral steps to the top of the fort. From the ramparts, Garden Key looks like a giant sea turtle with a deserted fort for a shell and flippers of beach protruding on both sides. Bush Key is the turtle's extended head, sticking out southeast into the sea. Perched on pilings, on bushes, and in the beat-up trees are more noddies and frigatebirds than eBird could count.
Dozens of snorkelers lazily cruise the skeletal pilings that once supported a coal dock, and atop each piling, roosting Brown Noddies cram together. A prize is here somewhere, I think, so I check every bird. About a hundred in, I find a tern that's smaller, slimmer. It's got a thinner bill, too, and a bright white cap that contrasts sharply with the black of its body plumage: a juvenile Black Noddy.
At 4:30 I'm scoping the snags of Long Key. After a few minutes, I locate a sole pointed-at-both-ends seabird ringed by larger and blacker frigatebirds. It's a soft brown with a shorter bill and tail than the frigatebirds, but at that distance it's tough to be certain if the feet are pinkish. I ask a few other birders to confirm what I believe is the Red-footed Booby. "Ah, looks like you've found it," they say. "He's a bit earlier tonight."
I'm then introduced to Wes Biggs, a one-time Dry Tortugas guide who's happy to share his thoughts on everything from geography to the Weather Channel while admiring my campsite water drip.
Nesters, migrants, and strays
"This is without question one of the top five destinations in North America," he says, watching a Tennessee Warbler and an Indigo Bunting share a bath. "What it has to do with is weather. The birds here are trying to get to Dauphin Island, [Alabama, about 500 miles to the northwest,] and they're getting blown east. There are three things that people come out here for: nesters, migrants, and Caribbean strays." Since he began guiding in 1966, he says, the Red-footed Booby has been iffy, and the Black Noddy has been seen in all but two or three years. "And one year we had seven!"
At times, it feels like a bird circus: The campground and fort are hopping with songbirds, and 40,000 seabirds are swarming continually around the islands.
Sonny Bass, a National Park Service biologist and researcher, has been studying seabirds at Bush Key for 30 years. He says that 30,000 to 35,000 pairs of Sooty Terns, 5,000 pairs of Brown Noddies, and 100 pairs of frigatebirds nested here every year. Then came the storm class of 2004-05. Charley. Dennis. Katrina. Rita. Wilma. Hurricanes have always influenced life in the Dry Tortugas, but not like that.
"Until about 2005, the Tortugas hadn't had any direct hits in some time," Bass says. "These are mostly sand coral islands, and they don't have much elevation.
"Those storms overwashed the islands and denuded them of vegetation. The Sooty Terns and noddies need the vegetation to nest."
In the years since, the vegetation and the terns have bounced back. "These are long-lived birds (up to 25 years)," he notes. "And they live with these kinds of conditions. They're pretty resilient, so they can miss a nesting season and come back and nest again."
Yet another birding contingent has landed at Garden Key - the Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours operation led by red-haired Brennan Mulrooney.
"We'll start out by birding the perimeter," he informs his flock, but just then, the little fountain beneath the mahoe tree gets busy. "There's a nice Bay-breasted Warbler," Mulrooney calls out. Immediately, a male Black-throated Green follows. "He's a hottie!"
The fountain - a major bird attractant for years in the parade grounds - is broken. Nothing issues from its spout, but warblers drop slyly out of the trees to steal sips of rainwater from the basin. There's a female parula, a couple of Magnolias, another Gray-cheeked Thrush. "Maybe we should just stay here for a couple hours," Mulrooney laughs.
(In the spring of 2009, the fountain was repaired and is flowing again. It's expected to remain operational, but the mahoe tree above it may have to go because it's an invasive exotic.)
For me, however, time's up on this trip. With a list of nearly 100 species in tow, I scramble to pack my gear and race to the dock of the island that was a fort and a jail, too. But now there are no doors. No bars. The birds come and go, and so do the birders. I've strapped my wristbands back on, but in all the rush, I've forgotten to pop Dramamine in a timely fashion, and I'm plumb out of ginger ale.
"This is going to be a little rough," the captain of the Yankee Freedom II announces, almost apologetically, as we depart. Uh-oh. For a touch-and-go three quarters of an hour I white-knuckle the railing, staring at the horizon and doing math tables as the hull of the boat bucks up and then belly-flops like a bull trying to shake a cowboy. When the sea grows suddenly, blessedly, calmer, the rest of the ride is a piece of key lime pie.
Like a lucky four-inch warbler, I've made it safely to dry land. From here on, it's a bug smorgasbord all the way to Canada. For the warblers, not me. Unloading at the dock, I feel so fine, all I can think of is supper at one of my favorite Key West hangouts, Half Shell Raw Bar. The stone crab claws there are to die for.
Wisconsin birder Steve Betchkal wrote about birding in Belize in our August 2007 issue and about finding Black Swifts in August 2008. He is the author of All of This and Robins Too: A Guide to the 50 or so Best Places to Find Birds in Wisconsin (Adarol Publishing, 2008).
Specks of green in a blue sea
Click to enlarge
For migrating songbirds, the Dry Tortugas are life-saving specks of green in a vast blue expanse. The map at right shows straight-line distances to and from the islands. Few birds actually fly such direct routes. Many warblers, cuckoos, and other migrants fall out in the park when thunderstorms blow them there.
Stray birds from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and South America show up at the Dry Tortugas from time to time, including the Loggerhead Kingbird at right. Here's a sampling:
White-tipped Dove April 6-7, 1995, Garden Key; April 19-May 2, 2003, Garden Key
La Sagra's Flycatcher March 27, 2003, Garden Key; April 11, 2009, Garden Key
Piratic Flycatcher March 15, 1991, Garden Key
Fork-tailed Flycatcher April 23, 1995, Garden Key; May 2000, Loggerhead Key
Bahama Mockingbird May 4, 2007, Garden Key
Yellow-faced Grassquit April 20-25, 1994, Garden Key; May 2, 2002, Loggerhead Key