Birding the Dry Tortugas in late April has always been high on my bucket-list of the best birding experiences in North America. Now before any of you think that I must be really old or dying to have a bucket-list I must assure you that before April 9th 2012 I was still in my thirties. That means I used to be very young. Almost infantile. Now I’m just young. And last week I got to celebrate my coming of (young) age by crossing one off the old list, courtesy of my mate Adrian Binns and Wes Biggs of Florida Nature Tours. The birding was epic thanks to a superb fall-out the day before we left Key West and I’ve gotta spout that this has been the very best birding I’ve had in Florida in 4 years.

Dawn at Fort Jefferson

Even if conditions are not favorable for a fall-out and you’re not as lucky (or as young) as me, there is bound to still be a steady stream of migrants if you visit during mid-April to early May. Day-trips to the Dry Tortugas are of course possible but the best way to experience the islands is on an extended 3-day guided tour. This way you can bird some of the keys surrounding Fort Jefferson and also increase your chances of a fall-out.

Loggerhead Key, just west of Fort Jefferson, can produce incredible and unusual birds

Our Tortugas adventure really began in earnest on the drive down to Key West where we started noticing unusually large concentrations of songbirds. Also in attendance were a few Peregrine Falcons and the ubiquitous ospreys. A fresh westerly wind had grounded a significant biomass of birds and I felt overjoyed at the prospect of exhausted and dying birds. And we’re supposed to love birds. Right? Wrong. Severe fall-outs, whilst the nightmare of migratory birds, are like manna from the heavens to any self-respecting birder and this one was proving to be no different.

Osprey snacking on its slippery prey

On arrival in Key West we headed straight for Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and were astounded at the sheer number of birds but most especially the warblers. They were everywhere and we were lucky to nail down some nice species including Prothonotary Warbler and a very confiding Kentucky Warbler.

An American Redstart

Yellow Warbler

Prothonotary warbler

Kentucky Warbler

After some very rewarding birding at Fort Zachary we headed straight for Indigenous Park. These quaint grounds were literally hopping with songbirds of all sizes, colors and songs. Highlights were Blue-winged Warbler, a first for me in Florida. We birded Indigenous Park until sunset and boarded the boat that was to ferry us to the Dry Tortugas the following morning. Not only did we already have an incredible 22 warbler species in the bag from one afternoon’s birding but we also got crippling views of dozens of other species including both Scarlet Tanagers and Summer Tanagers.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler, a scarce bird for Florida

Black-throated Green Warbler

We had three of these male Scarlet Tanagers flitting about in one tree

A female Summer Tanager at Indigenous Park, Key West

The 70 mile boat-trip over to Garden Key is really a mini pelagic trip. A notable species that we missed close to Key West, where they are normally spotted on markers, was the wonderful Roseate Tern but as we headed further out we picked up the first Brown Boobies, Bridled Terns and Audubon’s Shearwaters along with the odd Northern Gannet and the more common Royal Terns, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls.

Brown Boobies like to sit on the markers and buoys

Sooty Terns are generally seen closer to the Tortugas and this trip was no exception. They nest in their thousands on Bush Key, close to Fort Jefferson, the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere built in the mid-1800’s. Over 16 million bricks. Now that’s a lot of bricks for an unfinished fort. A cynic might say, “Good thing the US government has learnt from this mistake and now spends money more wisely”. But that cynic is not me. Green cards can be taken away at any time. And besides, I’m glad they spent money on one of the best migrant traps in the Western Hemisphere.

Close to this shining example of un-wasteful spending, we saw our first Masked Boobies of the trip on Hospital Key. This small sandbar is the only place in the US where Masked Boobies nest. For their sakes I hope they don’t get on the wrong side of any high tides!

A Sooty Tern crests the waters off the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere

Hospital Key, the only nesting site for Masked Boobies in the US

Our good luck with the back-end of the fall-out persisted when we arrived in the Dry Tortugas. We were fortunate to get off the boat at Loggerhead Key, the largest of the islands, and birded the key for the afternoon. The great thing about the Tortugas at this time of the year is that you never know what to expect. Almost anything can show up as demonstrated by a worse-for-wear Roseate Spoonbill that was desperately trying to sift through beach sand to feed. Now that’s probably the equivalent of humans trying to eat bark to survive. Yellow-billed Cuckoos were everywhere. An Upland Sandpiper wandered next to the lighthouse. Merlin and Peregrines joined us by taking advantage of the bountiful bird supply.

A desperate Roseate Spoonbill

Upland Sandpiper

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Merlin on Loggerhead Key

The bizarre and unusual continued as we birded Fort Jefferson the following days. A strange warbler had birders flummoxed. It appeared to be a partially leucistic male Hooded Warbler with the strangest colors imaginable.

The weird and wonderful Hooded Warbler

Garden Key and Fort Jefferson had some wonderful birds. The wrack-line outside the fort held White-rumped and Pectoral Sandpipers as well as the more common shorebirds and an exhausted Sora Rail. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks flaunted their gaudy colors like topless sunbathers on a beach in the south of France. An unusual bird that is seldom seen on the Dry Tortugas was a solitary Lincoln’s Sparrow. We added a few new warblers to the list including Cerulean and Wilson’s Warblers. There were several nighthawk sightings, some better candidates for Antillean Nighthawks than others.

White-rumped Sandpiper in the wrack-line

The White-rumped was foraging with a nice Pectoral Sandpiper

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks fighting over an insect

Lincoln’s Sparrow has only been recorded here a few times

A nice male Wilson’s Warbler

Although we didn’t hear it call, this is a good candidate for Antillean Nighthawk

Grey and Eastern Kingbird together

The Dry Tortugas is a very special birding location. Everything is so close. Nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds on Long Key. Brown Boobies and Sooty Terns on Bush Key. Migrants on Loggerhead and Garden Key. Masked Boobies on Hospital Key. All within sight of each other.

If you, like me, are running out of time to bird the best locations on the planet, then you need to get to the Dry Tortugas pronto. And by the way, Mike Bergin, who shares my birthday and founded this site, is WAY older.

Many thanks to Adrian Binns and Florida Nature Tours for the belated birthday gift.

Written by James
A life-long birder and native of South Africa, James Currie has many years experience in the birding and wildlife tourism arenas. James has led professional wildlife and birding tours for 15 years and his passion for birding and remote cultures has taken him to far corners of the earth from the Amazon and Australia to Africa and Madagascar. He is also an expert in the field of sustainable development and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in African Languages and a Masters degree in Sustainable Environmental Management. From 2004-2007 James worked as the Managing Director of Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that directs its efforts towards the uplifting of communities surrounding wildlife areas in Africa. James is currently the host and producer of A WILD Connection and he resides in West Palm Beach, Florida.