Dry Tortugas National Park
Today was our eagerly anticipated boat trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park. Two close Gray Kingbirds in the carpark were a good start and as the boat left the harbour 50+ Black Skimmers sat on the harbour arm.
The trip to the Tortugas took about two-and-a-half hours and we spent it all on deck watching for passing seabirds. Magnificent Frigatebirds began to appear, including one harrying an Osprey as it carried a fish. Flying Fishes took our attention for a while but birds soon took over again when our first Sooty Tern flew past, soon followed by Brown Noddies. Garden Key came into view and we picked up a Brown Booby flying past the boat. The Captain took the boat over towards Hospital Key so we could view the Masked Booby colony, 27 birds were seen on this small, sandy island.
Alighting from the ship at Garden Key we walked north to the north coaling dock, a series of old wooden pilings. The small bushes we checked on the way held male and female Blue Grosbeaks, many Palm Warblers, male and female Blackpoll Warblers and two Black-and-white Warblers. The pilings were covered in Brown Noddies but, as yet, we had no sign of the reported Black Noddy. Bush Key is joined to Garden Key by a sandy ridge and we walked to the fence to view the colony of thousands of Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns – a truly fantastic sight. And, in the distance, we could see the occasional 'strawberry' of a displaying male Magnificent Frigatebird. Around the walls of the fort flew Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and in a tree by the boat dock was found a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
Inside the fort walls is an area of open grass scattered with trees and bushes. Migrants abounded with Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hooded, Blackpoll and Black-and-white Warblers, Gray Catbirds, a Red-eyed Vireo, two Eastern Kingbirds and a Caribbean race Mourning Dove. Three Merlins put in appearances as did an American Kestrel whilst Cattle Egrets walked the grass in search of food and Magnificent Frigatebirds dived over our heads, sometimes coming within feet of us. Outside the walls, in the trees of the campground were more migrants: Prothonotary, Cape May and Tennessee Warblers, Ovenbird, Indigo Bunting and yet another male Painted Bunting. As we ate lunch, word came that the Black Noddy had been seen. Some dropped everything and rushed to the north dock only to find that the bird had gone! However, a few minutes later I picked it out as it flew in again and settled with the Brown Noddies. The differences between the two species were quite subtle, as the Black Noddy was very worn and quite brown!
On the boat trip back we had five more Brown Boobies, five Northern Gannets and a Great Blue Heron. On entering the harbour a bird that had wintered here, a rarity from the far north-west of the US, put in an appearance – a totally unexpected Slaty-backed Gull! A great end to a truly memorable day.