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Dry Tortugas Christmas Bird Count December 17, 2008

I was finally able to participate in the Dry Tortugas Christmas Bird Count, it has always been hard to get enough time to join this exciting count.  We had an excellent group of birders (Sonny Bass, Elsa Alvear, Michelle Davis, Deb Hess and Rafael Galvez) who helped make this count go very well.  We had a very nice count and got to see and hear some great birds, including some that had not been recorded at the Dry Tortugas. 

We left Key West on Tuesday December 16th at about 9:30 a.m. to travel by the park service boat to the Dry Tortugas.  We arrived at Garden Key around 3:00 p.m.  While traveling to Fort Jefferson, we saw several Pomarine Jaegers, Northern Gannets, Brown Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns.  We had a nice view of a Northern Gannet cruising right past the walls of Fort Jefferson, you don't see them this close very often.

Northern Gannet

We also saw some Bottle-nosed Dolphins, some of which came to ride the bow wake of the boat.  Once we arrived at Fort Jefferson, we had to unload all of our gear and get set up in our quarters.  We then searched the Fort for any interesting birds.  We hoped that if we found some less common ones, that they would stay for the next day's count.  Deb Hess, the naturalist on the Yankee Freedom II ferry boat, had seen an Eastern Phoebe and an Eastern Wood-Pewee in the last couple of weeks.  We all hoped that they would still be present for the count.  We did find the Eastern Phoebe but could not locate the Eastern Wood-Pewee.

Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Wood-Pewee was a Winter record that would have been the first documented in North America if we could have found it!  At least I would have hoped to have documented it with photos if it had still been present.  This was the first Winter record of Eastern Phoebe for the Dry Tortugas and the first one that I have ever seen there!

There were a large number of Palm Warblers present.  We think that we had about half a dozen "Eastern" Palm Warblers which are a very pretty yellow.  We don't get to see these very often in Florida so it was a nice treat for everyone!

Palm Warbler (Eastern race or yellow)

Palm Warbler (Western race)

Eagle-eyed Michelle Davis spotted two Pine Warblers, these are very rare here with these two making perhaps the third and fourth record ever for the Dry Tortugas!  I believe that my photos document these birds for the first time which is exciting.

Pine Warbler

Michelle also heard and saw an American Pipit.  The count two seasons ago also had one.
We all birded just about until dark seeing some more warblers.  Rafael Galvez and I stayed out until it got dark to look for owls or nightjars.  We looked for a while without seeing anything, hunger got the best of us and we decided to head for dinner.  Sonny Bass's wife made 12-pounds of Lasagna for everyone, we were really looking forward to this.  I had two helpings after a long day and I believe many others did as well, it was wonderful!  While we were sitting eating dinner and having lots of great conversation, sharp-eared Michelle Davis did it again by hearing Sooty Terns!!  We all listened from one of the fort windows, we all heard hundreds of Sooty Terns in the distance with some calling not too far off.  This may have been the earliest date that these have been heard.  We were hoping to hear them for the count day which we did after 12:00 p.m.

We got an early start for the count day, one party went to Loggerhead Key and the other birded Garden Key, Bush Key and Long Key.  Sonny and Deb ferried Michelle, Elsa and Rafael over to Loggerhead Key 3-miles west of Garden Key.  They  found a Piping Plover and a Dickcissel -- both good birds for the Dry Tortugas.  Rafael Galvez made a beautiful sketch of the Dickcissel which may be a first winter record for the Dry Tortugas.  I stayed on Garden Key (Fort Jefferson) and birded the shoreline and brick pile by the north coaling dock.  While over by the coaling dock, I flushed the American Pipit that Michelle had found, this was a new bird for my Dry Tortugas List.  The south coaling docks had Whimbrel as well as a Common Tern which is not very common at the Dry Tortugas.

Common Tern

American Pipit

On Garden Key I found an Orange-crowned Warbler.  We also had a very cooperative Savannah Sparrow.

Savannah Sparrow

Near where the American Pipit and Orange-crowned Warbler was found was this very cooperative American Kestrel.

American Kestrel

We birded here for a while and then traveled by boat to Bush and Long Key.  We got to see lots of Magnificent Frigatebirds as well as Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.  Roseate Terns -- up to 40-pairs -- have nested on Long Key for the last two year as well as a few pairs of Bridled Terns for the first time, which is exciting!  Bridled Terns were enticed to nest by building little rock house for them.

Bridled Tern house that works well!

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebirds on nests.

On the north end of Long Key where Bush Key joins together, Deb Hess was able to spot the American Crocodile that has been living there for about 4-5 years now.

American Crocodile

Sonny and Deb search for birds!

We flushed a few Savannah Sparrows from the brush along Bush Key but did not see too much else. 

Deb with a large Spiny Lobster shell.

After we finished Bush and Long Key, we traveled back to Garden Key to meet up with the other participants and to have lunch.  After lunch was over we decided to travel over to Hospital Key, Middle Key and East Key by boat to see what we could find.  We checked Hospital Key for the Masked Boobies but were not able to find them.  As we approached Middle Key we were able to see many Masked Boobies as well as many Brown Boobies. 

Brown Booby

It is possible that the Masked Boobies may attempt to nest on Middle Key as Hospital Key continues to grow and shrink because of storms.  Either key is not much more than a small sand bar so it will be tough for the birds to nest, storm waves often wash over both islands.

Masked Booby

Masked Boobies on Middle Key

We then traveled to one of the boundary buoys to look for Brown Boobies or whatever else might be around.  It was very rough so we could not travel fast.  We had some Northern Gannets fly by as well as other Masked Boobies.  Rafael saw a bird heading in our direction which turned out to be a Cory's Shearwater -- a first record ever for Dry Tortugas National Park!  It came very close to the boat allowing everyone to get great looks at it.  I was able to take some photos but never got one with the whole head showing.

Cory's Shearwater

Fort Jefferson looking from Bush Key.

We ended the count with 41 species, including four that I had not seen at the Dry Tortugas: Cory's Shearwater, American Pipit, Eastern Phoebe and Pine Warbler.  We also had 8 species of warblers which is quite good for a couple of sand bars.  A list of birds seen are below.

Masked Booby Royal Tern
Brown Booby Sandwich Tern
Northern Gannet Common Tern
Brown Pelican Sooty Tern
Magnificent Frigatebird CORY'S SHEARWATER first for Dry Tortugas.
Great Blue Heron White-winged Dove
Cattle Egret Belted Kingfisher
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Eastern Phoebe
Turkey Vulture American Pipit
Sharp-shinned Hawk Orange-crowned Warbler
American Kestrel Northern Parula
Killdeer Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-bellied Plover Black-throated Green Warbler
Piping Plover PINE WARBLER two birds very rare here.
Willet Prairie Warbler
Whimbrel Palm Warbler both eastern and western.
Ruddy Turnstone Common Yellowthroat
Sanderling DICKCISSEL first winter record for Dry Tortugas.
Laughing Gull Savannah Sparrow
Ring-billed Gull Grasshopper Sparrow
Herring Gull  



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