The DRY TORTUGAS – Paradise Islands for Birders

DRY TORTUGAS Bush Key + Fort Jefferson 1800x FINTEL copy

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Apr 11, 2020 | by Adrian Binns

While we are not able to visit the Dry Tortugas this month, we are already looking forward to returning next year to this wonderful destination. We are running 4 trips in 2021 with spaces still available. Have questions? See below, or feel free to contact me.

Why visit the Dry Tortugas?

The Dry Tortugas is a major birding destination in the United States, and a must-see experience for every birder. Located just 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the cluster of 7 small coral islands host thousands of nesting tropical seabirds – a spectacle found nowhere else in the country. With spectacular birds, sparkling blue waters, remarkable historical structures, and interesting sea creatures, the Dry Tortugas offers a unique, tropical-paradise experience.

Why is the Dry Tortugas a major birding destination?

Thousands of tropical seabirds congregate at the Dry Tortugas during their nesting season (March-July), creating a cacophony of sound and sight. Among the vast colonies are four species that nest only in this location in the United States. The islands also attract a variety of colorful spring passerines, including sub-tropical specialties and potential vagrants, who touch down on the islands during long migratory journeys. A dozen different species may stand side by side to drink fresh water from the fountain maintained just for them

Masked Booby by Adrian Binns

What are the special birds of the Dry Tortugas?

Sooty Terns are the most numerous birds on the Dry Tortugas, with as many as 80,000 breeding on Bush Key. A smaller number of Brown Noddies join the mix, with one Black Noddy usually found amongst the colony. About 100 pairs of Magnificent Frigatebirds nest on the adjacent Long Key. A short distance away is Hospital Key, just a narrow stretch of coral sand where Masked Boobies raise their young on open ground.

During the boat journey, we’ll search for such pelagic species as Brown Booby, Audubon’s Shearwater, and Bridled Tern. We may get lucky with rare Red-footed Booby or White-tailed Tropicbird.

Migratory passerines may include a diverse assortment of warblers, buntings, vireos, orioles, cuckoos, thrushes, flycatchers, along with-tropical specialties such as Black-whiskered Vireo, Gray Kingbird, Shiny Cowbird, and Antillean Nighthawk. Caribbean strays are also possible.

Why is it called the Dry Tortugas?

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon described the islands after landing there in 1513. He found an abundance of nesting turtles – an important food source for his crew – and named it Tortugas. The word ‘Dry’ was added to navigational charts, so that sailors and shipping merchants knew there was no fresh water on the islands.

Birding Fort Jefferson, Garden Key by Adrian Binns

What is the history of the Dry Tortugas?

Geographically, the Dry Tortugas, a cluster of 7 small islands called “keys,” is the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. After it’s discovery by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513, it remained strategically important for shipping and commerce.

Fort Jefferson was constructed on Garden Key in 1846, to protect thriving trade routes to and from the Mississippi delta. This military fortress was once the largest brick structure in the western hemisphere, and still reflects imposing architectural strength and style.

During the U.S. Civil War, Fort Jefferson was controlled by the Union, and blockaded Confederate ships from entering the Gulf. The fort served as an ideal prison, in a remote location, weathering harsh storms, with no reprieve from searing sun or biting insects. The prison’s most famous inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for providing medical assistance to John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. In 1867, yellow fever broke out and spread rampantly among the confined soldiers and inmates. Dr. Mudd worked tirelessly day and night to care for the sick and implement hygiene protocols that saved hundreds of lives; he was eventually pardoned for his contribution. Fort Jefferson was never officially finished, and was abandoned in 1875.

Artist and ornithologist John James Audubon spent 6 days at the Dry Tortugas in May 1832, painting Brown Booby, Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern, which where included in his Birds of America.

In 1908, the Dry Tortugas was designated a federal bird reserve. It became a National Park in 1992, encompassing 100 square miles of mostly marine habitat. Only the 7 small islands, less than 1%, is dry land. Today, the park welcomes thousands of visitors annually.

Cape May Warbler by Adrian Binns

When is the best time to visit the Dry Tortugas?

Spring is the best season to explore the Dry Tortugas, from the beginning of April through mid-May. This timeframe coincides with tropical seabird breeding season, and the journeys of millions of migratory songbirds and raptors winging their way up the Atlantic flyway to northerly breeding grounds.

How do you get to the Dry Tortugas?

The Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or seaplane. A ferry departs Key West daily (day boat), for a brief tour. Limited camping is available on Garden Key, but you have to bring all your own equipment and food. Wildside Nature Tours charters a boat for a 4-day trip.

Sunset in the Dry Tortugas by Adrian Binns

Why is Wildside Nature Tours Dry Tortugas trip a must-do experience?

Wildside Nature Tours charters the Makai for a 4-day/3-night experience in the Dry Tortugas. Our boat anchors off of Garden Key (the main island), providing optimal access. We enjoy delicious meals, spectacular sunsets, and a relaxed birding pace with expert guides and professional crew. Our multi-day agenda allows time for thorough scanning and pelagic opportunities, too. Adrian Binns has been visiting the Dry Tortugas for more than 25 years, guiding birders for some of their most wonderful moments in this island paradise.

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