Dry Tortugas #636-640 April 17, 2014
Fort Jefferson is a fort our government built in the 1850s that guards no place from nobody. It appears no more strategic than a random dot on the map. Why it was built seems to be more about financial kickbacks that any war or strategic planning. It protected our valuable (sic) turtle soup supply at the time. If there was some imminent threat to these rather insignificant sandbars fifty miles west of Key West from say the Spanish, I could see it or if there was something found on these islands that was worth guarding, besides seaturtles, I could see it but I do not think a half a dozen piles of sand that only three of them would be even large enough to build a hut on would be worth it. The Spanish sold them to America in the first place in 1822 so obviously they didn’t want them and so I doubt they ever coveted them back, not by a decade after the civil war It wasn’t even used as a prison. In terms of strategic importance…there isn’t a harbor and if there was a war, even a nineteenth century navy would just bypass them, the channel is way out of gunnery range even for modern guns.
It was never actually even used as a fort, It ended up being a prison which put the “I” in isolation. Maybe the prisoners deserved their fate out here, but the guards must have thought they had been sentenced to something and maybe they had. I think suicide must have been commonplace. The place is windswept, harsh, hot, devoid of much of any shade, and back in 1880, there must have few trees if any and a total lack any running water. One of the people taking the ferry to this now isolated National Park, commented that here mother wanted to know why the island was ‘dry’ and in that they must have had trouble with people drinking too much or maybe a throwback to prohibition. No the islands are dry because there was no water and for us, any water drank needed to be carried in. They did have a water source in the middle connected to a cistern that was popular with the birds.
Yes, what Dry Tortugas has besides sun, is birds and is the only place in North America where one can find Brown Noddy and Sooty Terns, where the south half of the island (formerly two islands but now connected due to the oddities of sand movement), is the home of large breeding colonies of both birds. Dry Tortugas is on everyone’s bucket list, well everyone who is a birder. I first heard about the place from Kaufman in his “Kingbird Highway” book. Along with Santa Cruz Island, Attu, and maybe Victoria on Vancouver Island, it is one of those birding spots everyone strives to get to.
The daily ferry took off at 8am with both Jim and I aboard. On the way into the island, we all looked for pelagics. I saw a Sandwich Tern in the harbor which was a target bird and we met Carol, a woman from Washington who was birding for a few days while visiting a friend in Sarasota. She had made the original report a few days earlier, it turned out about a Thick-billed Vireo up in south central Florida, one in which NARBA had doubts about because she did not have pictures, well she did have but no internet and was going to send them later. She was just trying to help fellow birders like I did when I posted the Shiny Cowbirds, since she says local birders in her area don’t post rare birds. She was a bit miffed at the attitude everyone had given her.
We chatted birds on the way out, everyone still excited about the adventure. The first close up was a big booby-like bird which looked a bit odd to me. It was a juvenile, but didn’t look right. First we wondered if it was a Brown Booby but that didn’t seem good, Jim later thought it was a red-footed Booby, but the bill wasn’t blue enough and the ‘experts’ claimed it was juvenile Northern Gannet which I agreed with eventually. A second one on Starboard also got the Gannet call but I saw it well and it was a Brown Booby. We eventually saw a couple of Masked Boobies flying before Jim got seasick as the five foot waves took a toll on him. The crew handed out Dramamine and barf bags which an eight year old next to me took full use of, his future career in the Navy was not meant to be. Jim didn’t need that, however, at least. This was calm water compared to Attu. We cruised in at breakneck speed and buzzed a small spit of sand called Hospital Key, where fifty Masked Boobies were hanging out and let me photograph them at high speed.
Soon the boat was in the middle of Brown Noddy and Sooty Terns. We took a turn to behind the boat and an a adult Brown Booby sat on a post allowing me to photograph and count the lifer for North America, I see Brown Boobies all the time in the Caribbean and there is a Red-footed Booby colony on St Barths.
I hadn’t even got to the island yet and had four ABA lifers (I had a Masked Booby before). We docked and everyone scrambled out in a hurry to go somewhere, like there was anywhere to go. I met some people who said good luck to us, but we were all going to the same place and would see the same birds, well, maybe they were the same but we wouldn’t call them the same things.
There was a large birding tour in which I got a really odd vibe about as I wasn’t so sure how novice the birders were and their guides looked a bit more low-cal in my opinion. One slept the whole way to the island on the two and one half hour ferry ride. The leader, friendly enough wore sandals. I am a stickler about birder equipment and clothing. I would never hire a guide wearing sandals. I also like better birders than I am, I think I was a better birder, Jim was definitely a better birder. They were calling out cattle egrets and finally on the island when one guide called out a coopers hawk, I turned and looked at the bird, and it didn’t fly like a Cooper’s, didn’t have the shape or color of a Cooper’s and didn’t act like one. On the second pass I saw the white butt, it was a Harrier. They yelled and got excited and then five six passes later, they agreed with my passing glance. Harriers are like pigeons in my home area and unless one is perched on y deck or strafing a cat of mine which has happened, I don’t pay them much attention. It is amazing they can hunt by ear the way they do and a squeak of a mouse at even a hundred yards might mean the end of a mouse. Later when I heard they had ‘seen’ a Black-whiskered Vireo, which seemed to be the only vireo on the island, I looked at Jim. He had seen a red-eyed vireo which looks a lot like a Black-whiskered but without the chin stripe. It can be subtle and in their zeal to get a pretty rare bird, I assume the guides called it that. It was then that I lost faith in anything they said.
I saw them call a Merlin a Peregrine, try to make a Blue Grosbeaks into Indigo Buntings, I just shook my head when they said that there was a lot of Indigo Buntings on the island, yea, a couple but six Blue Grosbeaks as well. Then there was the ‘nighthawk incident.’ There was one perched sleeping on a tree.
Most of the novices wanted to try to call it an Antillean Nighthawk which can be here but you cannot really tell them apart from Commons and they can look the same. It is truly only by voice to separate the two. This one did look smaller as I had seen one in the same species of tree on about the same sized branch a day earlier and we could compare by photos.
A birder was going to spend the night on the island and listen for the sound which is the only way one can tell these two birds about definitively. Many of the birders including the group with the guide had already checked off the rare Antillean and had moved on. I didn’t say much but when someone tried to say a first year male Orchard Oriole was a Hooded, there is actually even ebird posts claiming this, I stepped in and corrected this misidentification a few times, in honesty they do look like Hooded Orioles, just yellow.
I let the others scope the thousands of terns for anything interesting, sort of doing the Skua thing. Let them work and I take the spoils. Three of them, a group from San Diego calling themselves the Trogonistas, “we go..we find…we count” or something like that set up shop as I photographed birds and them. Here are the three of them and Carol looking over the flock.
I found a good vantage point of Brown Noddies (or is plural Noddy?)
Eventually a white tern was located, a Roseate Tern, which turned out to be bird #640. We had run into these guys in Key Largo, Long Key State Park, our hotel, and even later at a restaurant.
Hot, sunburnt, tired, worn out, having seen everything there was to see, drank everything, and my right knee hurting like it did the first time I birded with Jim on Delmarva in 1994, I was relieved to go back to Key West.
Jim looking a bit windblown
We sat up front in the wind and looked for sea birds but my heart wasn’t in it. I sat and watched Jim enjoy the bow and chatted with Carol. We saw some Royal Terns lounging in the Key West Harbor on the way home.
We got back and stumbled off the Yankee Freedom III, thinking it was almost worth the $160 adventure. My legs hurt, Jim was going through caffeine withdrawal and for the first time all week we let daylight go and went back to the hotel. Jim lives on instant coffee, cold, straight, whatever works. I made an email to NARBA and put in a good word for Carol’s pictures and they were eventually sent out to everyone as a full blown alert. We went out to eat and ran into the Trogonistas again at Konas a Hawaiian type restaurant at mile 16 out of town. They had went on our advice to Fort Zachary Taylor, and unfortunately struck out. It was hard to believe that the spot would deplete in 24 hours but that was birding. Jim and I surely needed a name for us. Over dinner I came up with the Bird Chasers, “any bird, any place, and in any attire, we’ll be there.” Now I needed to make t-shirts and expand our group of two. I think I’d work on Thor. He earned a t-shirt putting up with me on Attu. Now I just needed a design. I’d have to ponder that, maybe that would take another bird chasing outing.
It was a painful night, short, my knee hurt, and I kept waking up thinking I’d overslept. Key West Airport before 6 am was even more painful. Jim got lost in the rental car building, forgot his suitcase, and then once through security forgot he’d forgot to turn in the paperwork. He returned saying he found the drop box. I wondered where he had actually left the keys the first time to our rental but I really didn’t want to ask. The plane boarded and we left south Florida with a haul of birds for our lifelists, I was at 640 plus four exotics, and more than either of us would ever get on a single trip ever again in our lifetimes. That was depressing to think about.
I still had a little Florida meat left on the bone, four exotics, a Mangrove Cuckoo, and the elusive Purple Gallinule. I would have to return sometime, probably to chase a rarity. Pedestrian by big birders but I was happy and getting confident of my skills. My goal of 650 by Pribilof Islands, Alaska in September was achievable, but now I had to heal.
Despite the insanity of birding, it was a sane trip, no almost getting shot, eaten by gators, falling off a cliff, or near drowning and you know….boring is all right, definitely a-okay……..