The Dry Tortugas

On the 5 May we rose early , as we needed to be at the ferry before 6:30 to stow our camping gear on the ferry for the Tortugas. We then waited until 7:30 to board the ferry, The Yankee Freedom II catamaran and set off for Garden Key. We were treated to a continental breakfast on the ferry before venturing outside. The weather was glorious with only a slight swell on the water during the crossing although it was strong enough to make a few people wish they hadn't had so much breakfast. The swell made using binoculars a bit difficult but I did manage to see a group of Sooty Terns accompanied by a single Bridled Tern and three Audubons Shearwaters as they crossed the bow of the ferry. A single Forsters Tern was seen fairly close in to Key West. Other interesting sightings were good numbers of loggerhead Turtles and a pretty big Hammerhead Shark alongside the boat.

Yankee Freedom II Ferry

The Dry Tortugas consists of Garden Key which is the largest and has Fort Jefferson covering most of it. The fort surrounds a large lawn with several trees in it and a water fountain. Outside the fort is a dyke with a walkway around the fort and a small beach. Hospital Key is a flat small sandy island. Bush key which is joined to Garden Key is low and bushy where most of the terns breed. Close to this is Long Key with larger trees on it where the Frigatebirds nest and further away is Loggerhead Key which is sparsely vegetated and has a light house on it. With the ferry trip you are restricted to Garden Key but it is possible to scope all of the other keys except Loggerhead Key. If you ask nicely the ferry captain may also pass close to Hospital Key on the return trip to look for Boobies.

On reaching Garden Key masses of Sooty Terns could be seen and heard along with large numbers of Brown Noddys and the ever present prehistoric Frigate Birds soaring effortlessly overhead looking to rob a meal from one of the terns.

Chuck Wills Widow                    Wilsons Warbler                    Hooded Warbler

After docking or rather running the catamaran onto the beach we offloaded our gear to the campsite, a group of trees near to the beach. We had an introductory talk from the rangers about camping on the island and then had a good buffet lunch courtesy of the Yankee Freedom II. We pitched our tent on a designated camping pitch amongst the trees with 4 or 5 other tents and the birds began to appear. Great, now for some migrants which had been sadly lacking on the rest of our holiday. Round the tent we saw Hooded Warbler, American Redstart, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, and Ovenbird more or less as soon as the tent was up. Later in the day someone spotted a Chuck-wills Widow behind one of the tents and on our last day I had brilliant views of Wilsons Warbler feeding outside the door of the tent.

Tortugas Campsite

I headed off to the water fountain inside the garden of Fort Jefferson whilst Sarah did a self guided tour of the fort. On the lawn inside the fort Cattle Egrets loitered with intent looking for any worn out unsuspecting migrants to make an easy meal. Apparently one Veery and a Gray Kingbird were seen killed by Cattle Egrets whilst we were there.The fountain was brilliant, with a couple of bench seats close to it for sitting and admiring the many birds visiting to drink and bathe.

Cape May Warbler               Worm Eating Warbler               Black-throated Green Warbler

These included most of the birds from around the campsite plus Red-eyed Vireo, Black-whiskered Vireo, Sainsons Thrush, Grey-cheeked Thrush, Bicknell's Thrush (no mottling on cheeks and more rufous on tail than Grey-cheeked although difficult to separate), Magnolia Warbler (what a spanker), Cape May Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, (last day), Prairie Warbler, Palm Warbler (very common), Yellow-throated Warbler, Worm Eating Warbler (showed up on the second day), Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting (female only), and a rare White-crowned Sparrow (second record for the Tortugas). Other birds found inside the fort away from the fountain were a flock of Bobolink, a juvenile male Blue Grosbeak Summer Tanager, Belted Kingfisher, Carribean race Short-eared Owl (Arowak Owl), Ruby-throated Hummingbird (all females inside the fort. Alll males were seen outside the fort), a single male Black-chinned Hummingbird and a Tennessee Warbler.

Fort Jefferson I met Jim on the first day as he was over for a day trip. We checked out the shore line where Garden Key joins Bush Key by a short sandy bar of land. Semipalmated Plover, Spotted Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Lesser Yellowlegs and White-rumped Sandpiper were found. On bush Key thousands of Sooty Terns and Brown Noddys were nesting, whilst Royal, Sandwich and Roseate terns loafed along the shoreline. On Long Key Frigatebirds could be seen nesting. It was here that a juvenile Red-footed Booby came to roost each night and could be seen by scoping the top of the tallest tree on the key, which was its favourite roosting spot.
From standing on the spit of sand between Garden and Bush Keys it was possible to scope Hospital Key for the nesting Masked Boobies and four or five Brown Boobies could be made out perched on a nearby channel marker. These views were a bit distant but the captain of the outbound ferry took us in close to Hospital Key for a better look at my request. We were sorry to leave The Tortugas as we packed our tent on the last day. We had enjoyed our squeezy jam on dry bread, or bagels supplemented with cookies and gallons of water.

Royal Tern The sleeping arrangements were very uncomfortable without lilos or carry mats but I managed a few hours sleep on the second night after swapping sides with Sarah who seemed quite able to sleep on the tree roots that I had found underneath me on the first night. The islands highlights not only included all the birds but on an evening walk around the moat Sarah spotted a huge Loggerhead Turtle feeding by the walkway and further along we watched a young Green Turtle as it came up for air.

At night an army of purple, red and blue Hermit Crabs would emerge from the vegetation and head towards the water, leaving their unmistakable tracks in the sand which could be seen all over the island in the mornings.
After passing Hospital Key we headed back to Key West. The swell was up and the trip was a little hair raising to say the least. We stood outside to prevent sea sickness, but as the boat got tossed up and down by the waves we felt our feet leave the deck and come to the level of our hands which were tightly grasped on the grab rail around the boat. It was all a bit of fun in the end and several Americans let out some loud yelps and screams as the ferry shot up and down in the waves. We ventured inside for the last half an hour of the journey and filled in a questionnaire and received a post card momento from the crew before disembarking the Yankee Freedom II. If I knew what the rest of the holiday was going to be like I think I would have spent another couple of days on the Tortugas as it was by far the best place we visited all holiday. If you are likely to visit make sure you take something comfortable to sleep on, take plenty of wwater and possibly something more exciting to eat than we did. There are compost toilets on the island which are very clean but no showers. I would thoroughly recommend the experience though.

After picking up the car from a nearby car park which cost around $30 for three days we drove round the historic district of Key West which has some impressive wooden buildings. We headed back to the Travelodge to book a room. We took a chance of a walk in price rather than pre-booking as it saved us $30. It still cost just over $100 compared to our first night booked from home on the internet which only cost $90. All accommodation in Key West is pretty expensive and no better than elsewhere in Florida. That evening we drove around the back of Key West airport where a single Antillean Nighthawk was seen and more importantly heard.

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