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Florida Days 3 and 4

April 25, 2010

(Note: this was a note originally published to my Facebook page. I realize that it actually fits better as a blog entry. The original date of publication is preserved here. — Eric)

The Tern breeding colony on Hospital Key, Dry Tortugas, Florida

I didn’t have time to write anything for Day 3 when I got home. I was so exhausted all I could muster was a status update basically pleading for being allowed to go right to bed. That was necessary since I wanted to get up early the next morning again, although certainly not quite as early. See, I told you that I go wall-to-wall on these Florida birding outings…

Anyway, it’s too bad I wasn’t able to say anything sooner, since I was totally stoked after getting back from my Tortugas trip. It was fan-TASTIC. For all the trouble I went to, to make this ridiculous day trip happen, it was definitely worth it. I set the alarm for a little past 3 am Friday, and was out the door by ten past four. It’s 128 miles driving from Florida City to Key West, and although there was little to no traffic, it still takes 2 1/2 hours. If you’ve ever been down that way you’ll understand. I rode the “Yankee Freedom” catamaran from Key West harbor along with about 140 other people and the ride was about another 2 hours. I’d say that there were about 30 other birders on the boat, the rest being picnickers and snorkelers. Weather was fabulous with light winds and 78 degrees. You don’t see a whole lot of sea life on this trip, but you do see some, and we did see a fair number of flying fish as well as a couple surfacing sea turtles and dolphins. We also saw a few distant Brown Boobies.

We arrived at Dry Tortugas at 10:20am or so, and had a little over 4 hours to wander around. I got right to birding, and it was amazing. I mean AMAZING. It wasn’t even any kind of epic fallout day or anything, but I had never seen anything like it. First off, before you even arrive you can see the cloud of seabirds flying over the neighboring key that serves as their breeding colony. These are about 40,000 Sooty Terns, 6000 Brown Noddies, and maybe 2000 Magnificent Frigatebirds. So that was impressive. On the island itself are a few very small groves of West Indian hardwood trees, both inside and outside the fort that is the main attraction at Dry Tortugas for most non-birding visitors. These small groves were “dripping” with migrant landbirds. I’ve heard this expression “trees dripping with warblers” before, and wondered if that was just an exaggeration, and I now know that it is not. Again, my jaw was on the ground, as I wandered about and was seeing multiple warblers and other passerines moving around every tree every moment. You had to pick out which bird you wanted to look at. In about 20 minutes I had seen a dozen warbler species, and by the end of the outing I had even seen a new life bird, a SWAINSON’S WARBLER.

There were even raptors on the island, which to me is astounding – Peregrine Falcon and Merlin were moving around, and a few people caught a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl (although I missed it). All this on what is just a glorified sandbar with a few trees on it 70 miles from Key West and hundreds of miles from anyplace else that these birds could possibly survive on. In that way Tortugas is not only a birders delight but being there is a delight for the mind and the imagination.

And the pictures – holy shit did I get some kick-ass pictures. Did I mention the vireos? I have photos of Red-eyed, Blue-throated, and Black-whiskered Vireos. I have got a shot that has both Red-eyed and Black-whiskered in the *same frame*. I can’t wait to show these images. I even got 2 *killer* shots of the Swainson’s Warbler. Did I mention that I saw a freakin’ SWAINSON’S WARBLER? Oh, and I also got excellent photos of Indigo and Painted Buntings too. Forgot to mention that. I don’t usually characterize my own pictures so glowingly, but that’s how jazzed I am.

Anyway, we got back to Key West around 5:30, and I took an hour to bird Fort Zachary Taylor state park for any other interesting migrants. Didn’t see anything truly rare (like, say, a Loggerhead Kingbird or Yellow-faced Grassquit, both of which were seen there last year), but it’s still pretty cool when a casual 45 minute walk produces Gray Kingbird, Blue Grosbeak, another Painted Bunting, Indigo Bunting, Baltimore Oriole, and Ovenbird. At least it’s cool for a Colorado birder like me.

I tried for Antillean Nighthawk at the Marathon airport on Pigeon Key, but no luck. They’re supposed to be back now but apparently they’re a bit late. Oh well. I got back to the hotel after 10pm, and retired quickly.

For Day 4 (yesterday) I slept in til 5:30 the next morning, packed, and headed 20 miles back south again to Key Largo, this time for just one more bird, the resident Mangrove Cuckoo. There is some outstanding Mangrove Cuckoo habitat on Key Largo, arguably the best in all of south Florida, but good luck finding this bird. I looked for about 3 hours, played recordings (judiciously of course), but not a peep. I came across several Prairie Warblers and even a pair of migrating Bobolinks, but no cuckoos. I don’t feel too bad though, because this bird is legendary for being very difficult to find. I met a birder while there who was from Philadelphia, and on his 5th attempt of finding this bird. He was like me, armed with recordings and a camera and eager to look, but no dice. I read a report from a truly dedicated birder who has tried off and on over *30 years* to find a Mangrove Cuckoo, and still hasn’t succeeded. But the birds are definitely there, and are reported by lucky people every year. So I have a reason for heading back to South Florida again in the future.

I drove up to Avon Park/Sebring after that and am now with my Dad. We’re going to a Rays baseball game in St. Pete today, which should be great fun. I’ll be leaving the binos at home though, since the game is indoors. My understanding is that the Tropicana Dome is one of, if not THE ugliest ball park in the league, so now I’ll see for myself if that’s true.

And tomorrow I’m going birding with my old Raptor Center friend Angela Johnson, who’s going to take me onto the Air Force Bombing Range where she works and look for breeding brids there. Should be a ‘blast’!

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