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Thursday, May 05, 2016

The Dry Tortugas

The Yankee Freedom III
The bow of the YFIII
This morning our 4 person tour loaded onto the The Yankee Freedom III along with loads and loads of eager tourists. The Yankee is the National Park's daily ferry to the jewel of the the Dry Tortugas: Fort Jefferson on the Garden Key. The trip is another 'revisit' for me. My previous Tortuga trip was via a small cruise boat, which doubled as our hotel for several days. This time the trip is for a single, birdy-laiden, heavenly day.

The journey out of Key West was and remains, 70 miles on quite a bumpy sea, Thank heavens I don't get sea sick. Unfortunately for our little squad, the hurling masses included stalwart soul, Steven. He had the tenacity to stick it out, even though going in, he knew it was going to be rough. The man is quite the trouper!
Approaching Fort Jefferson on the Garden Key
The Garden Key dock
And are the Tortugas worth a green-gilled morning? Perhaps the Tortuga's recent claim to fame as a location where Captain Jack Sparrow sailed? A little, maybe. Is it then Fort Jefferson, when it was a prions, in which of Dr. Mudd did a stint for having tended to the infamous John Wilkes Booth? Nope. Come on, you know better. it's the birding!
Larry scoping for the Black Noddy
On debarking the Yankee, our little group hot-footed it north to view Long Key over which clouds of Brown Noddies shrieked. Larry set up a scope to look for the sole Black Noddy, known to prefer a particular perch on a beach-side snag. The noddy was not there, leading me to realize just how lucky I saw a Black Noddy in 1998... which is not to say I wouldn't love a second chance to  . We knew we could try again for the noddy later, so we headed off for the interior of Fort Jefferson.

View of Fort Jefferson, as we headed
back from looking for the Noddy 
Over the moat and into Ft. Jefferson
The fort is a beautiful building, it's bricks worn and beaten down by many a tropical storm. We hoped yesterday's storm might cause a 'fall out', i.e., tired birds dropping into the fort for a rest. That, did happen to a degree. There were warblers and other birds everywhere you could look. As for exhaustion, sadly there were Barn Swallows dotted throughout the grounds, like the one below that sat by the moat, looking woebegone, and tired.
Bedraggled little Barn Swallow
Inside the Fort, the interior is a lush & green. garden and everywhere one looked there were birds.

Lots of grounds in the Fort interior
The entrance in the interior of the Fort 
The birds can seem 'tame' as did the female Hooded Warbler below. She hopped around at eye level in one of the trees (seen above). I got the photo below from distance with my long lens. The pink knobs on the lower right of the photo are the knuckles of another birder who walked right up to the bird for phone photo. 
Female Hooded Warbler  
There's never knowing what will pop up in the fort on any given day it amounts to a crap shoot. Today I won the shoot - Larry pointed out a little grey-ish thrush, which was a lifer for me; a Grey-cheeked Thrush.
Cute little biddie; Grey-cheeked Thrush
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Ovenbirds, Yellow, Magnolia, Black and White, Black-throated Green Prairie and sundry other Warblers, with Kingbirds littered about. Hungry Cattle Egrets strolling around on the lawns like they owned the place.  
Gray Kingbird
Scattering of Eastern Kingbirds
Indigo Bunting
Overhead Frigatebirds surveyed the grounds, and various raptors paroled for their lunch. I saw one Peregrine Falcon, a few Merlin and many Sharp-shinned Hawks. 
Magnificent Frigatebird
Aerodynamic Merlin
Tyrant of the Tortuga: Peregrine Falcon
Really, the fierce-some little Sharp-shins were everywhere and I've never had a better opportunity to get action Sharpie pics. I shot one swooping bird just outside the fort, getting many interesting shots of the bird sailing past tourists. 
Sharpie swooping past tourists that did not notice the bird
It was interesting to hear Larry say that for all his b'jillion trips to the Tortugas he has never seen a Cooper's Hawk. Wow! That thought should keep me up nights wondering. 

It occurs to me - as it rarely does - I ought to show pics of the grounds itself, however bird free, as the Fort is awesome. I probably spent an hour or so wandering about on my own. Everywhere there were birds and history. The view below faces where rangers are boarded as well as where a Northern Waterthrush hopped around the underbrush. 
Facing Ranger's Quarters
Remnants of old barracks with 'case-mates' or gun rooms in the rear
 The building below was the Hot Shot Furnace. Cannon balls were loaded at the high end and super heated to cherry red balls when they emerged at the bottom.

Hot Shot Furnace
Bottom of Hot Shot Furnace, where cannon balls emerged
The super heated cannon balls were taken via tongs, to be shot from cannons to hit enemy ships.
Larry crossing 'Large Parade Magazine' whatevertheeff that is
Larry told us that several times escaping Cubans have shot for Fort Jefferson as a good place to seek their initial refuge. There are several such 'chugs' at the fort, that were used by freedom seeking Cuban refugees.
One of several 'chugs' or escape boats at the Fort 
At noon all returned to the Yankee Freedom III for a quick buffet lunch.  Headed for the lunch, I noticed all the Yankee's dock, and the front of the fort, tame Ruddy Turnstones darted about. They behaved more like pesky pigeons than shorebirds. They begged picnickers for crumbs - and of course, got it.  Got no pics begging but a great one of one Turnstone so close to my feet, I had to back up to get the photo below.
Ruddy Turnstone
The winding stone stairwell
Post lunch we returned the Fort for and took the ancient winding stone stairwell up to the top of the fort, by the Lighthouse.

The views from the top of the Fort are marvelous.

View from 2nd landing of stairwell on the way up

The view, stepping out of the stairwell - that's cannon 'dead' center
Looking back at the cannon and the lighthouse
Looking north past the moat
Southern view
Larry took up a post in front of the Fort lighthouse, setting his spotting scope towards Long Key. 
There, huge flocks of Brown Noddys and Frigatebirds swirled. A peregrine dive bombed the isle, which kept the birds on their toes... or rather on their wings.
Frigatebirds and Brown Noddies by the Long Key
Alas, again the Black Noddy was a no-show, as it was probably out there somewhere among the falcon stirred Brown Noddies. I did get a better look at the noddys earlier, out by the 'coaling docks'. The coaling dock is now in ruins of just the posts but that is where lots of noddys and gulls take it easy
Coaling Dock with its Noddys and a scattering of terns/gulls
Four Brown Noddys
The Yankee headed left dock around 3:30 and headed onto the turquoise sea. The captain slowed down so all could have a peek at the Hospital Key where flocks of Masked Boobys littered the shore.
Hospital Key 

Enlarged, teensy bit better view of Masked Boobys

I spent the trip back to Key West on the ship's bow, hoping to see a Bridled Tern. Oooo had I gone to the top deck with Larry and the others I'd have seen my lifer. Rats! Oh well, another time.

Sooty Tern on the return to Key West
I wished this trip to the Tortugas could be an overnighter, but mustn't be greedy. Maybe I'll make it back a third time, and maybe that trip will be an overnighter. Still, no complaints - our tour group wasn't done birding for the day.
My precious....
[UPDATE.. er... Backdate: Just for the heck of it, here below are recently re-discovered scans of negatives from my 1998 Florida trip. Below is the original, the greatest, the First Yankee Freedom boat. On that trip o' so many years ago, there were maybe 30 of us birders. We boarded the Yankee in the evening, and as the ocean was gawdawful, it didn't head out to the Tortugas until nearly midnight. The trip out was so rough as I lay in my bunk, in a room with at least a half dozen other women I could hear of the engine chugging away. Under that drone, I could hear the sound of abject misery, my roommates dry heaving. Next morning the skuttlebutt was the captain had also had a barf fest. Saints praise my sea-stalwart genetics. The trip to the Tortugas was so rough, a couple of passengers refused to take the boat back to Key West. Nope. Didn't swim back, a sea plane was hired to fly them back to Key West. 
My 'ride' in 1998, the original Yankee Freedom
I can't believe I'm even posting this, but here I am, or was, back in 1998. Note the fat knees and massive grin. 
How old is this photo? Note faint ratchet marks along the the top, from the negative I scanned this from, not to mention, notice I'm wearing a watch. Do you even remember what watches are?
On that trip, our boat load were the only tourists on the Garden Key for three days, save for other tourists at the Garden Key's campground. My group would return to the Yankee Freedom for meals and for sleeping at night. Daytime we'd tour the Garden key sometimes returning on board to boat around the Tortugas to view its Tortuga islands, such as the Hospital Key. One day we snorkled on the shores of the Loggerhead Key.  

Male Frigatebird, art by David Sibley
One morning we took turns ferrying to the Bush Key for a closer view of the Brown Noddys and nesting Frigatebirds. The male Frigates had massive, & rather obscene looking red throat pouches with which an equally obscene noise was produced. All that and I got NO photos as I had nothing more than a 25 mm lens back then. 

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