Because the migration season for warblers was nearing its end, we had planned our visit to Dry Tortugas as early as possible. Dry Tortugas is a group of small islands about 100 kilometers west of Key West and a hotspot for birds during spring migration. The ferry transfer was booked up front by the internet (which is recommended since it is very quickly fully booked). The Yankee Freedom II is a small catamaran-like speedy vessel with the advantage of a sundeck (which most other charters to Dry Tortugas lack), so that during our trip we could scan the Gulf of Mexico that surrounded us on all sides. The point of departure of the Yankee Freedom II to Dry Tortugas is mentioned in the ABA Birdfinding Guide. The price for a return ticket is about $100 but a visit to Dry Tortugas is a must for every birdwatcher visiting Florida. Besides large colonies of Sooty Tern (> 40.000 pairs!), Brown Noddy (2000 pairs) and Magnificent Frigatebird, you can find breeding Masked Boobies and Bridled Terns species like White-tailed Tropicbird (which we missed, alas) and Red-footed Booby are reported annually. And to top all that, the spring migration of passerines is simply phenomenal. During the top season it is recommended to spend a night on garden Key (camping is the only option). Those who decide to return the same day have about three hours to investigate, which is enough to see the island but not nearly enough to locate all birds on it.
Even before we boarded the Yankee Freedom II we caught our first glimpse of migratory species in Key West: Black-throated Blue Warbler was ticked even before we left the car andAmerican Redstart and Black-and-white Warbler were also easily found. Gray Kingbird was more numerous than expected.
During the passage Magnificent FrigatebirdBrown Pelican and Royal Tern were common. It wasn’t until we came into the proximity of the islands that greater numbers of terns showed up. Keep your eyes open for Bridled Tern, it is easier to find just out of Key West and during the beginning of the passage than when you have to search among the huge numbers of Sooty Ternsnear the island.
On Garden Key (the only island that is visited by the Yankee Freedom II) there was still some migration of warblers going on. An Ovenbird was investigating the edibility of the contains in my backpack while Cape May Warblers were skulking around in the bushes around the tents. In the courtyard of the fort there were numerous warblers amongst which we found species like Palm WarblerPrairie Warbler, many Northern Parula’s and American Redstarts. We also found a Cedar Waxwing, some Bobolinks and a handful of Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s. A Bahama Mockingbird, a late Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Conneticut Warbler were lucky shots. At the only sweet water fountain on the entire island most of the birds can be seen at a short distance. The present Cattle Egrets seem to be hunting the warblers: there’s nothing else to be had there for them. So when you realize that those herons that refuse to eat birds or are not so good in catching them will die within days then their tameness all of a sudden makes you sad.
From the higher viewpoints of the fort you can see the island Hospital Key, which is no more than a pile of sand, but which houses a couple of pairs of Masked Boobies (a telescope is essential!). If you are willing to kiss up some butt with the captain of the Y.F. II (he’s a nice guy) during the passage back to Key West then he might be inclined to take his boat close to Hospital Key. He will then stop there for a moment so you can watch the Masked boobies more closely. This is highly recommended.