A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

A tale of nature, wildlife and birding from Cheshire, North Wales and across the globe....

Friday, 18 August 2017

Florida Birding Trip Report - Day 8 (The Dry Tortugas National Park)

The Dry Tortugas National Park – 100 square miles of pristine and beautiful island habitat tucked away around 70 miles offshore from Key West in the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico. World famous for its picturesque views, stunning blue ocean environment, coral reefs, bird life and the 19th century fort that gives one of the islands its name, it was the impressive seabird colonies and reputation of the fort as a legendary migration hotspot that drew us to this fantastic location.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Only accessible via boat or plane as part of an official tour, we booked ourselves on to one of the day trips – and boy did it deliver. Before we had even reached the shore we’d got our first (rather unexpected) pelagic lifer in the form of an Audubon’s Shearwater, taking off from the water as the boat sped across the surface before flapping alongside, disappearing in to the distance as the boat powered forward. Rather similar to our Manx Shearwaters back home, the rather more ‘flappy’ flight style of the Audubon’s Shearwater was extremely noticeable, the serene gliding of our Manxies most definitely absent and the wings slightly shorter and broader. Manx Shearwaters are also extremely rare in these waters, with very few records indeed.
Dry Tortugas
Prepared for all weathers!
Dry Tortugas
With the only colony of Masked Booby in the continental US found on a part of the Dry Tortugas island chain known as Hospital Key (only visible from the boat trip over), we asked the captain if we could stop by on the journey across to take a look at these fascinating seabirds. True to her word, around 10 minutes from shore the boat stopped temporarily opposite the famous Hospital Key, and despite the continuous bobbing on deck due to the waves (looking through a scope proved to be a tad tricky) we and the handful of other keen birders on board got great views of around 75 Masked Boobies sat on the white sand. 
Masked Boobies - Hospital Key, Florida
Masked Boobies!
Superficially similar to a Gannet, these beautiful black and white seabirds had a distinctive posture, and despite the distance we could make out their shorter yellow bills, black faces and characteristic black patches on the wings.
Masked Boobies - Hospital Key, Florida
With the boat moving on from the Boobies after 5 minutes of watching and approaching the jetty to dock, the lifers kept coming thick and fast. Nearing the seabird colonies meant hundreds of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies were now streaming overhead and all around the boat, accompanied by several Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring serenely along on the thermals, dwarfing everything else with their sheer size. 
Brown Noddy - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Brown Noddy
Sooty Tern - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Sooty Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Magnificent Frigatebird
The Dry Tortugas are the only significant nesting sites in the continental US for these tropical seabirds, and it was a real privilege to see them up close. With a gorgeous warm chocolatey brown plumage and white icing-sugar dusting on the head, the Brown Noddies were particularly attractive – swarming in their hundreds around Fort Jefferson and Bush Key.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Well known as being a particularly hot migrant trap during the spring and autumn, we were keen to check out what other goodies Fort Jefferson held, and heading in to the compound we were met with a flurry of activity – the air was positively alive with birds in every direction you looked.
Dry Tortugas
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Some of the very best birding is often being bang in the middle of a huge fall during migration - particularly when that fall contains such gems as the bright coloured American warblers. Everywhere we turned there was activity, masses of Hooded Warblers flitting through the limited tree cover, while Ovenbirds flipped over the leaves below to forage. 
Ovenbird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Ovenbird
A male Kentucky Warbler briefly perched on a branch was our only bird of the trip, while an abundance of the ever present Palm Warblers moved through the trees. Several Black and White Warblers – one of my favourite American Warblers and reminiscent of small humbugs - were a great addition to the day, as were the handful of American Redstarts that joined them.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
The water fountain on Fort Jefferson was like a magnet for migrants
Louisiana Waterthrush was our first lifer in the compound, foraging along the ground and displaying the extremely prominent and wide white supercilium vital for the ID, much bolder and brighter than the Northern Waterthrushes we encountered in New York the previous year. With much whiter underparts and a paler and less marked throat in the Louisiana Waterthrush, the identification features separating the two are extremely subtle at best.
Louisiana Waterthrush - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Louisiana Waterthrush record shot
Having missed Louisiana Waterthrush on our last trip to America, it was great to catch up with this earlier migrant, and even better to get a positive ID on what can be a tricky species.
Louisiana Waterthrush - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Photo - Alex Jones
With so many migrants present in such a small contained area within the fort, the huge number of small birds naturally attracted predators to take advantage of the easy pickings – several Merlins, American Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons swooped down continuously out of nowhere in an attempt to grab a meal.
Peregrine - Florida
Peregrines took advantage of the tired, grounded migrants
Three cuckoos taking flight from one of the trees turned out to be our only Yellow-billed Cuckoos of the trip, their rusty wing colours diagnostic, while our second Solitary Sandpiper probed in the soft grass below.

A large, long winged bird suddenly bursting out of the tree cover before gaining height was immediately obvious as a Nighthawk. With two conspicuous white patches on the wings, we watched as it rose higher and higher out of sight, failing to get any photos and the encounter lasting mere seconds. With two possible species on the Florida Keys – Common Nighthawk and Antillean Nighthawk – and the call being one of the only reliable ways of identification, the bird remaining silent meant there was unfortunately no way of telling which of the two it had been. While Antillean Nighthawks are usually much later migrants, meaning it was highly likely to have been a Common, there have been records of Antillean on the Dry Tortugas in very early April before, so with the particularly early season in terms of migration, we just couldn’t rule it out.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Each bush on Fort Jefferson held something different!
Splitting up our search, I soon spotted something brown and black perched in the top of one of the trees – male Orchard Oriole! This was another bird we had missed in New York despite an extensive search at Prospect Park the previous year, but as quickly as it had appeared it had vanished, flying over to the opposite side of the compound and out of sight before Alex could get on to it. Alex it turned out however had found his own treasure, two male Blue Grosbeaks in one of the trees above him. Missing them by seconds, we headed over to the other side in an attempt to locate each other’s birds, but could only find several Indigo Buntings and a Scarlet Tanager moving through the leaves.
Scarlet Tanager - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Scarlet Tanager - Photo by Alex Jones
Catching sight of a slight movement in the tree next to me, a small brown bird came in to view, immediately recognisable as a Vireo species. Raising my bins to determine the ID whilst thinking to myself how fantastic it would be if it had black whiskers, I was absolutely gobsmacked to see that it did – two beautiful and strongly marked black stripes running vertical from the bill – Black-whiskered Vireo!! In a panic, I immediately grabbed Alex – this was a bird not to be missed and could be our only opportunity to see this species. Relieved that he soon got on it, we could really admire this stunning little bird – a mangrove specialist and restricted in range in the US to just Florida. Again, thinking we would be far too early to catch up with one, the exceptionally early start to migration had played right in to our hands, meaning we struck it lucky with both the overwintering birds and the usually later migrants that had left their wintering grounds much earlier than usual this spring.
Black-whiskered Vireo - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Black-whiskered Vireo! Amazing find!
This did indeed turn out to be our only Black-whiskered Vireo of the trip, and we were exceptionally lucky to jam in to this iconic Florida species.
Black-whiskered Vireo - Dry Tortugas, Florida
With the Black-whiskered Vireo disappearing back in to the leaves, it soon became apparent there were several other Vireo species knocking around the fort, and we had both Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos along with great views of a single Yellow-throated Vireo.
White-eyed Vireo - Dry Tortugas, Florida
White-eyed Vireo - Photo by Alex Jones
Yellow-throated Vireo - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Yellow-throated Vireo - Photo by Alex Jones
Suddenly, Alex called over – he’d relocated the Blue Grosbeaks in one of the nearby bushes. With their gorgeous rich royal blue colouration, these were truly stunning birds, and later flying up in to one of the trees I was standing under I was really able to appreciate their huge bills and rusty red wingbars – a useful feature in separating them from the equally as bright Indigo Buntings.
Blue Grosbeak - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Blue Grosbeak - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Blue Grosbeak - Dry Tortugas, Florida
The gorgeous royal blue of the Blue Grosbeaks was stunning!
The lifers kept coming thick and fast from this point. A gorgeous Summer Tanager popped out on one of the branches in front of us, the beautiful scarlet plumage lacking any black (as shown on Scarlet Tanagers) and with a huge yellow bill. 
Summer Tanager - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Summer Tanager - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Summer Tanager - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Summer Tanager
Completely red in colouration, this was an extremely attractive bird and another we had missed out on seeing on in New York – the Dry Tortugas just didn’t stop delivering!
Summer Tanager - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Turning our attention back to the wall, Alex suddenly called out he’d found a Prothonotary Warbler, a large, bright yellow warbler reminiscent of an oversized lemon, and one of the species I had most wanted to see on our trip. Another later migrant and with no set site for Prothonotary Warblers, I had worried that we would miss them, and this did indeed turn out to be the only one we saw. 
Prothonotary Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Prothonotary Warbler - looking like a beautiful giant lemon!
A personal favourite, we got absolutely astounding views as it bumbled along the crumbled wall, at one point hopping up in front of me less than a metre away. Shining out like a beacon, we followed its progress as it foraged in the scrub in-between the bricks, watching in awe of this truly incredible bird. Amazing!
Prothonotary Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Prothonotary Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Prothonotary Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
With several other warblers joining the Prothonotary in foraging, we soon had our first Tennessee Warbler of the trip, swiftly followed by another Prairie Warbler and several more Hooded Warblers. It was a breath-taking sight to see all of these brightly coloured gems feeding alongside each other, powering up on this brief respite from a long migration before making the next step on to the mainland.
Hooded Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Hooded Warbler - it was nice to see more males of this species after seeing several on our trip to New York the year before
Hooded Warbler - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Hooded, Palm and Prothonotary Warblers - Dry Tortugas, Florida
At one point several warblers were in the same metre squared patch of ground! Amazing!
We also managed to catch up with the male Orchard Oriole which had made a reappearance, this time Alex managing to get on it too and sticking around long enough to let us get a record shot of the gorgeous autumn colours. More subdued in coloration than the bright yellows of the Baltimore and Spot-breasted Orioles, with his rustic reds and blacks the male was stunning in his own right, much smaller than the other oriole species that we had seen but just as beautiful.
Orchard Oriole - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Male Orchard Oriole
After a jam packed morning full of birds we were soon in the need of a welcome break for lunch, taking advantage of the on-board buffet for some much needed refreshments and to take shelter from the impending drizzle that seemed to have set in.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Deciding to devote the afternoon to admiring the masses of seabirds that make the islands their home, we took a wander along the white sandy shores, littered with old remnants of coral and capturing a true picture of a tropical paradise.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
Hundreds of Brown Noddies rested on the old moorings around the harbour, offering fantastic views of this tropical seabird up close.
Brown Noddy - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Brown Noddy - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Brown Noddy - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Brown Noddy - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Brown Noddy!
Dry Tortugas, Florida
The moorings were covered in hundreds of Noddies!
Walking up to the rope protecting the nesting area on Bush Key, we also got great scope views of the Sooty Tern colony perched amongst the extensive cactus growth, these agile fliers dipping and diving in a flurry of activity.
Sooty Tern - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Sooty Tern!
A walk around the island soon resulted in breath-taking views of the mighty Magnificent Frigatebirds, kettling above us in the air currents with their huge pterodactyl like wings. 
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Female Magnificent Frigatebird
Providing our best opportunity to photograph these enormous birds and with at least one male amongst them, we were able to get good views of the bright red breeding pouch on the throat, distinctly different from the white markings of the more numerous females. 
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
And the male!
With Long Key being the only breeding site for Magnificent Frigatebirds on the continental US, it was a real privilege to experience these incredible birds up close.
Magnificent Frigatebird - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Our second Yellow-crowned Night Heron of the trip, this time an adult, was also a bonus, giving great views on the path in front of us and constantly flying back and to into the fort walls.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Yellow-crowned Night Heron - an impressive adult this time!
With just the Brown Boobies missing from our seabird targets, we scoped out to scan the distant buoys and perches in an effort to locate them. Alex soon found 4 individuals perched on one of the metal posts, and although extremely distant, through the scope we could just make out their long, gannet like pale bills and faces, different from the resting Double-crested Cormorants in both posture and structure.
Brown Boobies - Dry Tortugas, Florida
VERY distant record shot of the Brown Boobies!
Brown Boobies - Dry Tortugas, Florida
And cropped!
With our stop on the islands coming to a close and our re-boarding time for the ferry back to Key West rapidly approaching, we took one last look inside the fort for any additional migrants – getting further views of a Waterthrush (presumably the same Louisiana as earlier) and watching the Hooded Warblers still actively flit around our heads. 
Waterthrush - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Louisiana or Northern - we weren't sure!
Waterthrush - Dry Tortugas, Florida
The birding here on the Dry Tortugas had been absolutely outstanding, exceeding all our expectations and truly blowing us away with the sheer pace, quantity and above all quality of the species stopping off on this island hot spot. Several of the birds we saw here were also our only ones of the trip, cementing our visit here as one of the best days of the entire trip – the beautiful island setting only adding to our enjoyment.
Dry Tortugas, Florida
With a hotel booked in Key Largo for the night, we made the journey back up the Keys as soon as our boat landed at Key West in the late afternoon. Several more White-crowned Pigeons perching on the wires as we left the town were nice to see, as were the small flocks of Brown Pelicans cruising alongside the road as we drove. 
White-crowned Pigeon - Florida Keys
White-crowned Pigeon
Brown Pelican - Florida
Brown Pelican
Immediately after arriving at our hotel 2 hours later, our brilliant day’s birding still wasn’t over. As soon as he’d parked the car, Alex caught sight of a huge owl perched on a nearby telegraph pole. Suspecting it could be one of the false decorative owls that people put out to scare away pigeons, we couldn’t believe it when it turned its head to gaze straight towards us, a set of fierce, piercing yellow eyes staring us down. There was no mistaking this mighty being and our third owl species of the trip – the magnificent Great Horned Owl.
Great Horned Owl - Florida Keys
Great Horned Owl! (Real - not plastic!)
With the light now fading and it being almost dark, there was no real opportunities for photographs, but we watched in awe as this huge bird of prey took off and soared silently over the car park. Magical!
Great Horned Owl - Florida Keys
Extremely tired after a long day our on the islands, we headed straight to the conveniently placed restaurant next door to tuck in to some American ribs and fresh Florida seafood, before crashing in to bed for a much needed night of sleep!
Florida Keys
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