Migration Madness in the Dry Tortugas

I got up very early and packed up quickly. The predawn drive to Key West went without a hitch and I stood at the check-in for the Yankee Freedom II right at 6:30 am. I pulled up my roller bag and water supplies from the car and onto the dock. I got information on parking and left my vehicle in the nearby garage. The trip out was pretty boring with almost no birds, just a few Sooty/Bridled Terns not seen well. When I arrived at the Dry Tortugas, a couple and I, the only campers, received a quick introduction before we could head off to set up.

Even though it was May 18th, fairly late during spring migration, birds were apparently still on the move. While setting up my tent an Ovenbird walked by, strutting across fallen leaves under open brush. The Ovenbird would be my constant companion near my tent for the next three days. A small group of warblers made me set my gear down and reach for my binoculars. An American Redstart sallied into the open and a Magnolia Warbler fed close by. Two very bright male Yellow Warblers snuck in and out of view. I abandoned any plans to set up camp and headed towards the fort. I walked towards the western beach and stopped near a large area of dense brush and low trees. It was full of American Redstarts, Magnolia Warblers, and a beautiful male Cape May Warbler. Further along, I had my first great looks at Brown Noody sitting on the coaling docks. Inside the fort migrants were numerous with many warblers and thrushes. Gray-cheeked Thrushes were numerous with several Swainson’s Thrushes and Veery. Bank and Barn Swallow plus a Chimney Swift circled the fortification. Later I added Northern Parula and Red-eyed Vireos.

Brown Noody Garden Key, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz

A few shorebirds wandered the beach with Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Plover and two White-rumped Sandpipers. I made the usual rounds, checking the coaling docks for noody, looking far out at Hospital Key, where I could make out the Masked Boobies, and spending time checking every tree for migrants.

Blackpoll Warbler at drip in Ft. Jefferson, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz

May 19th Dry Tortugas

I saw a pair of Eurasian-collared Doves everyday, more evidence of the species incredible ability to colonize new areas. A single Rock Dove was also interesting, with a single Mourning Dove rounding out the Columbids. Sitting by the drip I caught a Black-whiskered Vireo sneak in for a drink a bird that would become a regular at the fountain. Many of the same birds from the previous day seemed to still be around, except for a few thrushes that had clearly fallen victim to stalking Cattle Egrets that tried to soak the carcasses at the fountain. I snorkeled a lot this day, one highlight was a group of thirty tarpon five feet in length in the morning.

Black-whiskered Vireo Garden Key, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz

A Gray Kingbird had set up shop among the snags for the three days and on this second day I noticed Eastern Wood-Pewees for the first time. There were a few changes of birds, the male Cape May had left, but the female still visited the drip. Cattle Egrets had become more numerous. The previous day I had seen a single Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

Gray-cheeked Thrush Garden Key, Dry Tortugas, Photo Stephan Lorenz

In the evening I watched the bioluminescense in the moat under a night sky exploding with stars.

Cape May Warbler Garden Key, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz

May 20th Dry Tortugas to Key West

I woke up a little late this morning, exhausted from doing laps around the island yesterday, but immediately headed for the parade grounds. The morning air was still cool and the island quiet. I walked towards the drip to check the line of trees and sea grapes near the staff quarters. A large bird flushed from the tree ahead of me and I thought it was one of the doves, but noticed a long tail and white tail tips. It disappeared in a dense sea grape. Bahama Mockingbird shot through my mind. I carefully walked up to the brush and got some concealed views, yes there was no doubt, it was a Bahama Mockingbird, large size and strong streaking on the flanks. It flew into one of the larger trees near the fort wall. I followed and eventually spotted it high up in the canopy. It preened for a few moments and then worked its way higher. I decided to take the nearby spiral staircase in one of the towers to head to the top of the fort. I ran up hoping the bird wouldn’t fly. On top I looked down into the tree and suddenly spotted the bird, it worked its way to the top of the tree, giving a minute long view right in the open before flying past me over the fort. Despite searching the rest of the day I never found the Bahama Mockingbird again and I am sure it actually had left the island.

Bahama Mockingbird garden Key, Dry Tortugas, best bird of the trip Photo Stephan Lorenz

Searching for it in the campground I flushed an Eastern Whip-poor-will, a surprising life bird. I snorkeled a bit, but new birds started appearing. A male Baltimore Oriole flew over and the number of thrushes seemed to be increasing. An exhausted Green Heron just stood on the lawn near the moat. I did another round of the fort and found a female cowbird in the grass among the starving Cattle Egrets. I carefully studied the bird, at one point very close as it flew into one of the sea grapes. I couldn’t see any streaking; the bird was uniform in color, and appeared to have a small pointed bill. The white throat muddled identification a bit and I was not able to take a photo. I strongly leaned towards Shiny Cowbird based on the bill and uniform color, but couldn’t be one hundred percent sure. An American Kestrel appeared out of nowhere, the third species of falcon as I had seen Merlin and Peregrine Falcon earlier.

I nearly missed the ferry as I sat by the fountain studying the birds coming to drink. The captain was ready to leave and I ran up the plank with my daypack much to the amusement of everybody already on board.

Cattle Egret with captured thrush species, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz

Veery hiding from the Cattle Egrets, Dry Tortugas Photo Stephan Lorenz


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