TRIP REPORT: DRY TORTUGAS – 2017 April

DRY TORTUGAS Bush Key + Fort Jefferson 1800x FINTEL copy

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Trip Report written by Adrian Binns

Day 1 / April 16 – Key West

Our group met on Stock Island after dinner to board the boat following birding at Key West Botanical and Tropical Gardens, Indigenous Park and Fort Zachary Taylor SP. Corey, the Playmate first mate, gave us an orientation of the boat before we settled in for the night. The previous trip that was due to return today to Key West was cancelled due to high winds and rough seas, but for our trip the wind had calmed down a bit and Captain Joe let us know that it was a go.

Day 2 / April 17 – Key West to Garden Key

Following a good night aboard, the engines were fired up at 5am and we set sail within the hour. We strong winds continued out of the east at 20+ knots but the seas had dropped to 3-5. The continuously moving Gulf Stream had pushed some 40 miles off of route, so getting there was out of the question, but Captain Joe had a plan!

Following Sara’s wonderful breakfast that included a delicious scrambled eggs with goat cheese, diced tomatoes and chives, we ventured to the upper deck to sea watch! Once Captain Joe had us in over 200 feet deep water we encountered scattered sargassum weed lines that had been spread about due to the wind and rough seas. Always a good sign as, the small sea life that is associated with the weed, often attracts pelagic birds!

Don spotted the first of a handful of Northern Gannets, most being immatures, with some alighting of the water near to the boat. Surprising we quickly found a pair of Bridled Tern crossing the bow and had our hopes up that these would be the first of many, but alas that was not to be. Audubon’s Shearwaters were more numerous, but given where the Gulf Stream currently is, we were lucky to see almost double digits! There were close views of Brown Boobies including several on the Tail’s End marker giving us the chance to check out the field identification marks, namely the demarkation on the breast and lack of any white rump in flight, as well as being able to compare it to the other possible sulidae. Though never encountered on a regular basis, an adult Pomarine Jaeger with very visible spoons at the end of its tail, is always a wonderful sight.

There would be a couple of other wonderful encounters, one being watching a juvenile Magnificent Frigatebird maneuvering just above the waters surface chasing flying fish, that were likely driven to the surface by tuna. It was unsuccessful! The other, a pod of nine Bottle-nosed Dolphins coming at the the bow before turning around and swimming with the boat for several minutes.

By late morning we had entered the Dry Tortugas National Park boundary, and we headed towards the third of the parks small narrow coral islands, Hospital Key. Following lunch we slowed the boated down as we approached Hospital Key, Masked Boobies only nesting site in North America! For half and hour we were absorbed as some of the estimated 80 to a 100 boobies all congregated at the eastern end of the island took to the air for short sorties. As they came in to land we could hear the whistles (males) and grunts (females) of their mates greeting them! Two birds made close passes to the boat much to the appreciation of our group.

The last leg of the journey, a short 15 minutes into the harbour at Garden Key, gave us a close broad view of the incredible and extensive brick structure that is Fort Jefferson, along with our first looks at some of the thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns that inhabit the Dry Tortugas during the first 6 months of the year. We were able to dock next to the “day boat”, the Yankee Freedom III, and alight onto Garden Key. We began by walking around the outside of the fort giving us a chance to orientate ourselves with potential birding spots.

The strong easterlies meant that there were few Brown Noddies on the North Coaling Docks. Between the lack of noddies there and the strong winds it made searching for a Black Noddy nearly impossible. There would always be tomorrow! Sharon found a Bridled Tern sitting on one of the rusted pilings, his being a complete surprise. It gave us a chance to check out a field mark that is impossible to see when out at seas, the white supercillium going beyond the eye! The South Coaling Dock produced more birds including another nice surprise, an adult Brown Booby. Sandwich Terns were most numerous, with a handful of Royals mixed in, and two 1st year Roseate Terns rounded out the selection.

The raptor show was most impressive with many migrant Northern Harriers on the move including a ‘gray ghost’ flying over the Masked Boobies, a Sharp-shinned Hawk, several Merlins, a pair of Kestrels and a Peregrine all zipping through the parade ground inside the fort at various times trying to scare up a passerine.
Turkey Vultures are uncommon here, but at the moment six of them when not terrorizing the tern colony, were hanging with frigatebird.

The numbers of warbler species and quantity of them with the exception of ubiquitous Palms, were low. We got to see a Northern Waterthrush on the dock, a female Northern Parula in the buttonwoods, Prairies amongst the sea grapes, a pair of Common Yellowthroats, a Black-and-white putting in a brief appearance at the fountain, an Ovenbird, and several American Redstarts including one being chased by two Merlins. Amongst other passerines sighted, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Gray Kingbird, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a Belted Kingfisher around the moat!

Day 3 / April 18 – Garden Key

Scattered and widespread showers turned into a steady rain, thunder and lightening show beginning at 3am and continuing through the midday hours. This, along with the high winds was most unexpected, keeping us from getting on Garden Key. At times, many terns swirled around the boat; a large congregation of several dozen frigatebirds hung above the fort; an adult Common Tern flew by the boat as did a nighthawk species, which looked to be a Common. Our first turtle showed well when a large Loggerhead surfaced at the bow of the boat.

At one point our anchor broke loose, a sail boat grounded itself and a small park service craft began to take on water! Safety being the most important aspect of the trip, Captain Joe moved the boat to a calmer section of water. We passed the time with stories, lunch, and and a slide presentation on the Lighter Side of Birding!

By 2pm the weather system had passed and as we were getting ready to head to the dock 19 American White Pelicans flew over. This was totally unexpected having only been recorded a couple of times at the park.

Much to everyones relief we got off the boat and onto Garden Key. The storm had produced a nice variety of migrants, some of which were in good numbers such as eight Green Herons, a dozen Yellow-billed Cuckoos and half a dozen American Kestrels. Throughout the afternoon there was also a steady stream of Merlins, which along with a few Sharp-shinned Hawks and a Coopers terrorized the passerines in the fort’s buttonwoods.

Sora’s are certainly not unexpected and are usually found in the moat area as was the case with Sandy’s find. However, a Black-crowned Night Heron is most certainly uncommon! New passerines included 2 Gray Kingbirds, a male Painted Bunting tucked into the sea grapes was, Indigo Buntings and Sharon got a Black-whiskered Vireo. Or warbler species increased with eight Ovenbirds, three Swainson’s, a stunning male Cape May and two females, two Worm-eating, a male Blackpoll to go along with the lingering Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, Black-and-white, Northern Waterthrush Prairies and Palms, all of whom had additional individuals show up.

Scanning Bush Key by scope in the afternoon light is a delight, but it is the opposite when the winds are blowing 25 to 30! In spite of this we managed to find a Black Noddy perched on a prickly pear next to a Brown Noddy for comparison.

Julie and Chris went snorkeling which was most successful seeing over three dozen different fish including grunts, goatfish, parrotfish, angelfish, porcupinefish, wrasse, tangs and slippery dicks!

Day 4 / April 19 – Garden Key to Key West

The winds continued unabated and the seas were rougher than expect with patches of 5-8 feet! Captain Joe made the wise choice to leave earlier than normal knowing that the journey would be long as it was. We departed soon after 5.30am and got into Key West at 2pm. There was little to be seen along the way, though the markers at Rebecca Shoal produced a couple of Brown Bobbies and a pair of Roseate Terns.

© adrian binns / WildsideNatureTours.com

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