Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas (August 1998)


I spent the last week of August on a boat conducting an acoustics experiment about 10 miles south of the Marquesas Keys. I also did some birding in Key West and made a trip to the Dry Tortugas.

Due to a delay in Miami (an engine went out just as the plane was about to lift off), I arrived in Key West just before sunset on the 22nd and canceled my birding plans for the afternoon. However, I got to see MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD and ANTILLEAN NIGHTHAWK from the balcony of my hotel. The next day I finally got to see WHITE-CROWNED PIGEON, a bird I had missed on a trip to Florida last year. I visited Zachary Taylor State Historical Site in hopes of seeing ROSEATE TERN but had no luck. However, it was nice to watch wave after wave of migrating BARN SWALLOWS reach land’s end and boldly fly out over the sea.

The boat departed early on the 24th. Although the sun hadn’t yet risen, there was enough light to make out the long tail of a ROSEATE TERN perched on one of the channel markers on the way out. I soon found that pelagic birding in this area is relatively slow, especially when the boat isn’t seeking birds. The most common birds were BARN SWALLOW, SOOTY TERN, and MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD. When a storm set in late one afternoon, about 20 frigatebirds struggled right past the boat against the gale. The best bird of the trip showed up the second day. A brown morph RED-FOOTED BOOBY skimmed over the water (somewhat like a shearwater) right in front of the bow and provided an excellent view. I was fortunate to be on the bridge when this happened. The other big highlight was the close approach of a pair of BROWN BOOBIES that provided an excellent view. I also saw a few AUDUBON’S SHEARWATERS, CORY’S SHEARWATERS, BRIDLED TERNS, ROYAL TERNS, and SANDWICH TERNS. An OSPREY flew past the bow at very close range. I also saw small flocks of WHITE IBIS, GREEN HERON, and CATTLE EGRET. I saw two shorebirds fly by, which appeared to be SEMIPALMATED SANDPIPER and LESSER YELLOWLEGS.

The lights on the back of the boat attracted migrants at night. At first, I thought I was seeing wave after wave of birds. However, it soon became apparent that the same birds were making repeated passes. I was concerned for the birds, but they seemed to eventually get their bearings and continue on their way. On our last night at sea, we were hit by a severe storm and the same birds continued to circle for a few hours. A GREEN HERON and a few warblers landed on the boat. A NORTHERN PARULA perched on a string dangling in front of the window I was watching from and hung on for dear life in a driving rain. It was startled by a tremendous thunder clap a flew over to a rope, where it perched in the rain and wind. A desperate NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH landed on the back deck. The birds continued to circle for a while but eventually seemed to move on.

The GREEN HERON remained on board until the next morning. It made an attempt to fly away but struggled back to the boat. It finally flew out, gave out a loud skwawk, gained a few hundred feet of altitude, and headed south on strong wingbeats. I watched it until it became a speck and disappeared. I think it had plenty of strength but just had to recover from a terrifying night. I walked around the boat looking for other birds and found a dead PROTHONOTARY WARBLER. Just before sunrise, I saw a small bird fly away from the boat and land on the water. Since this action was apparently deliberate, I was confused at first trying to figure out what it was. I was able to see it sitting on the water about 80 feet from the boat. I realized it must have been a warbler when it tried to lift off from the water.

We returned to Key West on the 30th. The next day, I took the Yankee Freedom to the Dry Tortugas. It was the best $85 I have spent for birding, with the exception of a pelagic trip that was run by Brian Patteson out of Hatteras earlier in the month. The fare includes breakfast and a nice cookout on Garden Key. I’m glad I didn’t dump hundreds of dollars into one of the more lucrative trips. The captain and crew were extremely helpful. Although I was the only birder on board, the captain swung by Hospital Key and stopped so I could see the MASKED BOOBIES. Upon arrival, I entered the fort to watch warblers at the water fountain. I saw NASHVILLE WARBLER, NORTHERN PARULA, YELLOW WARBLER, YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER, PRAIRIE WARBLER, BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER, AMERICAN REDSTART, PROTHONOTARY WARBLER, and OVENBIRD. I caught a glimpse of the tail of a raptor, which I believe was a COOPER'S HAWK, as it flew into a tree. At the North Coaling Dock, I saw a large number of BROWN NOODIES, several MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS and BROWN PELICANS, and a BROWN BOOBY. About 100 MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS were circling above Long Key. I ate lunch in the campground near the South Coaling Dock and enjoyed watching warblers foraging in the trees.

I returned to the North Coaling Docks to savor the BROWN NODDIES. It’s a good thing I did because there were two BLACK NODDIES (Number 600 for me) mixed in. I had been worried about differentiating the noddies but found that the differences are striking when they are perched side-by-side. Talk about a great birding site! I was able to see BROWN NODDY, BLACK NODDY, BROWN BOOBY, BROWN PELICAN, and MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD all perched at close range in the same binocular view. Other birds I saw on Garden Key include WHITE IBIS, CATTLE EGRET, DOUBLE-CRESTED CORMORANT, WILLET, SPOTTED SANDPIPER, RUDDY TURNSTONE, SHORT-BILLED DOWITCHER, LAUGHING GULL, ROYAL TERN, SANDWICH TERN, MOURNING DOVE, EASTERN KINGBIRD, RED-EYED VIREO, BARN SWALLOW, a female oriole, and a flycatcher.

When I got home, I was eager to get into some fall birding. The next morning, I stopped by Wakefield Park, which is just outside the Beltway in Northern Virginia. The first migrant I saw was a CONNECTICUT WARBLER!