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The Dry Tortugas – A Very Rough Guide!

April 2003

by Carole Leigh

While wrestling with a triffid in my garden in 2001, I considered my options for my next birding trip abroad. My trip-unfortunately, not our trip, as Peter and I then embarked on foreign travel separately due to our beloved border collie’s great old age. My problem was that I don’t drive and this limits my options. It’s not that I haven’t tried driving, but I get distracted easily and can well imagine the ensuing chaos if I were ever to get behind the wheel of a car – let’s just say, I would do nothing to improve the reputation of women drivers! This is a minor obstacle, surely the obvious solution would be to go on an organized tour you may think. Yes indeed, this would save a lot of hassle, would be safer and more comfortable and I would probably see more birds, but like most photographers, photography is my priority not my list. I work better away from other people, I enjoy the challenge of independent travel and can choose my own agenda. Also, being occasionally intolerant, I don’t have worry about being stuck with a complete stranger who may irritate the hell out of me. This would not be my first solo birding/photographic trip and I enjoy travelling abroad alone as it is not only feasible but fun.

The Preparation

During a previous visit to Florida, Peter and I took a day trip to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key on the Dry Tortugas (around 70 miles from Key West). We were so impressed with the tiny island and its migrants and seabirds that we resolved one day to return and camp there. So as a diminutive woman with attitude, who does not drive but enjoys birding and is an obsessive photographer, camping independently on the Tortugas was a seemed a good choice. I decided on three nights (four days). The trip would also give me the opportunity to spend a day photographing the architecture in Miami and a few days in spent Key West would be fun. All that was needed was a little gentle persuasion (failing that, sheer stubbornness) to get my family to approve my hare brained scheme and, of course, eventually they did. So I learned a little karate for self-defense (just in case) and made the arrangements. The ferry and accommodation in Key West were booked via the Internet.

Key West is fun, has great character, is uniquely stylish but has a price tag to match. The ferries (Yankee Freedom II or the Fast Cat), had a set fare of approximately $100 - $130, discount was not available. Inititally they seemed rather expensive, but were in fact good value, providing breakfast and an excellent picnic lunch on the day trip and will even provided snorkeling gear (highly recommended).

The Trip

Miami

All photographs of Miami by Carole Leigh

A night in the Art Deco district of Ocean Drive on South Beach Miami was quite an experience. I am glad I have been there, but I’m unlikely to return. I spent a day photographing the architecture and some of the colourful characters of that area (I don’t just do birds). I can honestly say that South Beach, Miami is the noisiest place I have ever been.

Loud music emanated from the bars and most of the flashy vehicles, many of which were draped with the Stars and Stripes. I can only guess that it was the bikes, not the men, that created the attraction for the girls! Some of the characters had to be seen to be believed - I saw one guy riding (no helmet) on a motorbike with a large Boa Constrictor draped around his neck! The boys would probably enjoy it, but would run the risk of tripping over their tongues as I have never seen so many examples of the ‘perfect’ female form. I also saw one or two birds to interest me, including a few of the feral parrots of that area.

Colonian Architecture of Key West

Leaving Key West by Peter & Carole Leigh

The following day found me on a flight over the Everglades and on to Key West. Old Town Key West is charming with attractive colonial architecture, lots of bars, restaurants and a very picturesque harbour. Fortunately the Americans are rather fond of the Brits, they think we are quaint and a little eccentric (perhaps the latter just applies to me), their hospitality contributed to my enjoyment of the trip. At the western tip of the island is Zachary Taylor State Park. This can be very good for birds under fall conditions. There is an old fort and a wooded area next to a beach. Unfortunately, I was a little late in the season for the best birding.

The best place we found (on our first trip) for Antillean Nighthawk was an area of wooded marshland and creeks adjacent to the airport on the south side of Key West. We braved the ‘no see ums’ and other biting insects at dusk when froglike calls announced the presence of the bird. Good views were gained as they flew out to catch insects near the streetlights on the main road.

Following a couple of days working Key West, an early morning voyage on the Yankee Freedom took me, my cameras and camping gear to Garden Key and Fort Jefferson (note, there is a 60 kilo weight restriction for luggage on the boat including food but not including water). The camp site is situated on a grassy apron of land in front of the fort. There are wooden tables and iron grills. Campers must take everything needed including water for drinking and washing and all food as, apart from salt water toilets, no other facilities are available on the island. All rubbish must be washed and taken back with you and provisions cannot be bought once there.

The Tortugas

Brown Noddy by Carole Leigh

Fort Jefferson, The Dry Tortugas by Peter Leigh

Brown Noddy by Carole Leigh

During the voyage, I saw Northern Gannet, Brown Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Audubon’s Shearwater. The boat slowed as we approached Hospital Key (a small island, nothing more than a sand bar) for a view of the Masked Boobies which breed there. As we approached Garden Key and Bush Key, Brown Noddies and Sooty Terns flew close to the boat.

On arrival, I was delighted to hear of an Antillean Nighthawk, which was roosting on a tree inside the fort. So, having left my camping gear on site, I set off to photograph the bird which slept peacefully on a low branch, allowing me to take frame fillers to my hearts content.

Although not classic ‘fall’ conditions on the island (Peter and I saw more species during our day trip three years ago), from a photographer’s point of view, it was still superb. I spent many hours near the small freshwater fountain (drinking water for the birds only) where the migrant birds refresh themselves. The fountain is their only source of drinking water for around seventy miles as they fly north across the Gulf of Mexico.

Black-throated Blue Warbler by Carole Leigh

Magnolia Warbler by Carole Leigh

Ovenbird by Carole Leigh

Antillean Nighthawk by Carole Leigh

Birds are unbelievably obliging here. Sitting quietly under the trees, watching and waiting, I was rewarded with excellent views and many good photographs. When people are absent, hungry Cattle Egrets sneak towards the fountain and hide behind the brickwork in an attempt to catch the poor unsuspecting warblers as they bathe and drink.

The Fort is an impressive brick built structure, which was constructed to protect the Florida straits and southern states from the English (my Welsh identity came to the fore during that disclosure!). It encircles lawn and scattered trees where tired migrant birds now rest. At one time up to two thousand people occupied this tiny island.

I had a few particular targets for the camera to improve on our Florida slide show, amongst these were Ovenbird, Magnolia, Black throated Green and Worm-eating Warblers. I also needed to improve on the seabird shots. Four days on this remarkable island allowed me ample opportunity to do this, so in this regard, the trip was a complete success.

Recently connected by a sandbar to Garden Key, the island of Bush Key is a breeding ground for Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies. There must be thousands of them. You can now walk across the sandbar to a separating fence to get very good ‘scope views of them. Under no circumstances must anyone pass this fence as the island is protected and trespassers will find themselves in very hot water and deservedly so. Much closer views of the Noddies can be gained on the derelict old coaling docks in front of the fort, where a good number of them perch. I was delighted to learn that Black Noddy had been seen there. However it evaded me for three days before I finally caught up with it and took a few record shots.

Prehistoric looking Magnificent Frigatebirds hang constantly in the air currents above the fort. In the soaring temperatures, I imagined how the prisoners (Fort Jefferson became one of the most feared prisons in American history) must have viewed them. Their freedom as they cruise the breeze above the fort must have taunted the incarcerated men in the heat, stench and misery of their captivity (the moat was once the sewer, the smell must have been intolerable).

During daylight hours most of the fort is open and freely accessible, no go areas are all clearly marked. American birders showed me a viewpoint from the top of the fort, reached via a spiral staircase, where Gumbo Limbo trees grow level with the top, touching the walls. Several warblers fed in the canopy here giving very close views.

In fact it was from the top of the fort that, along with many of the island’s visitors, I saw likely evidence of the darker side of the Gulf.

One bright moonlit night one of the rangers, dressed in a military uniform from the last century (wool, poor guy must have been melting) led a candle lit tour of the fort to acquaint us with some of the more interesting facts and stories regarding the building and its inhabitants. His voice was temporarily drowned out by the sound of a helicopter, which flew with lights off and so low that it alarmed many participants in the tour who seemed certain it would crash. I overheard that drug runners from Columbia fly in this manner to evade radar and detection. Later the helicopter returned, higher this time and with its lights on – had it dropped off its illegal cargo, or was it just a military exercise – who knows?

A Caribbean race Short Eared Owl was present inside the fort during my stay, roosting well hidden in long grass under a small bush. It had eluded me for a couple of days, but eventually I got on to it and using a 2x converter on my 500mm. lens I was able to photograph it resting without causing it undue disturbance.

It was well worth taking a break from birding for an hour or so to snorkel in the warm clear waters along the seaward side of the moat wall. Strange and colourful corals abound here (don’t touch, they are easily damaged) and curious, brilliantly coloured fish often swim close. I was told of a Nurse Shark in the waters, and although I was assured that, while it was not particularly dangerous, it could turn nasty if irritated.

Bearing this in mind, it was with some alarm that I saw an enormous fish swimming towards me as I passed a gap in the moat wall. I viewed the walls, wondering if I would be able to scale them and concluded that I would not, so, heart pounding, I decided to remain still as the fish passed. I then realized with some relief, it had scales and could not be a shark. I believe it was a Tarpon, harmless. I enjoy the occasional adrenaline rush and it certainly flowed then.

My stay was by no means easy, largely due to the effort of hauling my gear around for days in the heat, having limited access to fresh water (for anything other than drinking), and suffering from bleeding and blistered feet, sunburn and lack of a decent meal. With the weight of the photo, optical and camping equipment I was limited to about 3 lbs for food. This meant a diet of muesli and water (in situations like this, I regard food only as fuel).

Despite all of this, at the end of my four days on the island, I was reluctant to leave. I considered the discomfort to be a small sacrifice for the pleasure of photographing birds in such extraordinary surroundings.

I would highly recommend this journey to anyone who has the opportunity while travelling in southern Florida. Even the daytrip is well worthwhile. Opportunities to photograph migrants at such a close range, is a rare privilege and on the Tortugas in mid to late April it can be guaranteed.

The remote beauty of the area and the intriguing fort all combined to make this adventure an unforgettable experience. Despite the almost overwhelming desire for a beer, a good meal and a shower during my stay, I would not have missed a single moment and have already vowed to return to this remarkable island. Nevertheless, the cold Bud, steak dinner and key lime pie back in Key West the following evening tasted like heaven.

Tortugas List 24-28 April 2002

1 Audubon’s Shearwater 31 Blue winged Warbler Key West
2 Masked Booby 32 Magnolia Warbler

1

Red bellied Woodpecker
3 Brown Booby 34 Blackpoll Warbler 2 Osprey
4 Northern Gannet 35 American Redstart 3 Belted Kingfisher
5 Brown Noddy 36 Yellow Warbler 4 Great Egret
6 Black Noddy 37 Yellow rumped Warbler 5 Grey Kingbird
7 Sooty Tern 38 Blackburnian Warbler 6 Great Crested Flycatcher
8 Royal Tern 39 Black whiskered Vireo 7 Boat tailed Grackle
9 Magnificent Frigatebird 40 Ovenbird 8 Common Grackle
10 Brown Pelican 41 Catbird 9 Catbird
11 Least Sandpiper 42 Northern Waterthrush 10 Mockingbird
12 Spotted Sandpiper 43 Belted Kingfisher 11 Brown Pelican
13 Black bellied Plover 44 Grey Kingbird 12 Double Crested Cormorant
14 Ruddy Turnstone 45 Yellow billed Cuckoo* 13 Ruddy Turnstone
15 Sora Rail 46 Bobolink 14 Magnificent Frigatebird
16 Laughing Gull 47 Mourning Dove 15 Least Tern
17 American Herring Gull 48 White winged Dove 16 Laughing Gull
18 Ring billed Gull 49 Collared Dove 17 Ring billed Gull
19 Double crested Cormorant 50 Antillean Nighthawk 18 Black-throated Blue Warbler
20 Green Heron 51 Common Nighthawk 19 Common Yellowthroat
21 Cattle Egret 52 Chuck Wills Widow 20 Palm Warbler
22 Common Yellowthroat 53 Cave Swallow 21 Cape May Warbler
23 Black & White Warbler 54 Northern Rough winged Swallow 22 Northern Parula Warbler
24 Northern Parula 55 Barn Swallow 23 Black & White Warbler
25 Prairie Warbler 56 Caribbean Short eared Owl 24 Prairie Warbler
26 Cape May Warbler 57 Northern Harrier 25 Yellow rumped Warbler
27 Black Throated Blue Warbler 58 Osprey 26 Starling
28 Palm Warbler 59 American Kestrel    
29 Worm eating Warbler 60 Peregrine    
30 Black throated Green Warbler 61 Indigo Bunting