From their discovery in 1513 by Ponce de Leon, through the visit of naturalist John James Audubon in 1832, to the present, the Dry Tortugas have been known for their amazing richness in migrating land birds and vast seabird colonies. Imagine, 100,000 Sooty Terns all in one place, all at one time. That’s what you can see if you’re near Bush Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park during the nesting season each year from March through September. Though Bush Key is closed during nesting, the rookery may be observed with binoculars from Fort Jefferson on nearby Garden Key. Also seen nesting in the rookery are some 4,500 Brown Noddy Terns and occasionally Black Noddies are seen among them.
The seven tiny islands of Dry Tortugas are a vital layover for migrating birds traveling between South America and the United States making a staple in the Great Florida Birding Trail. Here you may find a ruby–throated hummingbird, peregrine falcon, yellow billed cuckoo and white-eyed vireo all in one day! Nearly 300 species of birds have been spotted here and it is not uncommon to see 70 or more species in the spring in a single day.. Spring is the optimal time to view birds, but any season offers the chance to see something unique at this exquisite Florida Keys Birding spot. Even the untrained eye is easily impressed by the seven–foot wingspan of the magnificent frigate bird, often seen soaring above the fort’s harbor light. Visitors between the months of February and September will also have the opportunity to watch in awe as thousands of sooty terns soar above Bush Key. Their raucous calls warn outsiders to stay clear of guarded chicks*.
Some of the common and rare species you will encounter along the Florida Birding Trail at the Dry Tortugas National Park include: Roseate and Bridled Terns, Masked and Brown Boobies, Red-Necked Phalarope, Red-Footed Boobie, Double-Crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, Frigate Birds, the Caribbean Short-Eared Owl, White-Tailed Tropicbird, Shiny Cowbird and the Golden Warbler. Come and enjoy the magnificent creatures that call the Dry Tortugas home. Roseate and bridled terns feed on fish and squid in open ocean waters surrounding the park. Often seen near Ft. Jefferson are masked and brown boobies, double crested cormorants, brown pelicans and magnificent frigate birds. During spring and fall migrations, Caribbean short eared owls, shiny cow birds, warblers, and thrushes grosbeaks cuckoos are seen on Garden Key where the fort was constructed. Summertime, look for white tailed tropic birds. Fall brings many acceptors. All year round there are always special birds to be seen at the Dry Tortugas.
Click here to download a Dry Tortugas National Park Florida Birding Checklist
About 80,000 nest annually on Bush Key, the only important breeding colony in the continental U.S. Outside the nesting season, they resort to the high seas and seldom approach mainland shores. Sooties are first heard in late December at night. Their numbers increase gradually until they land and begin nesting in early February. Each female produces one egg, and the male and female alternately incubate it for 29 days. They then care for the chick for 8 to 10 weeks. Their food is primarily fish and squid caught at sea surface, at times 50 miles or more away from the colony. Sooties begin to leave during June and by mid-August the colony is almost deserted. Extensive bird-banding shows that most adults spend their off -season in the eastern Caribbean, whereas young birds migrate to the eastern tropical Atlantic where they spend up to 5 years aloft off West Africa before they return to the Dry Tortugas.
About 4,500 Brown Noddies also breed on Bush Key, placing their bulky nest of seaweed and sticks in the bushes and mangrove trees. They arrive with the Sooty Terns, but tend to stay longer, sometimes as late as October. From band returns, they seem to range much less widely than Sooties, seldom leaving the Gulf-Caribbean region.
First discovered at the Dry Tortugas in 1960, a few have been found in most years since then. They appear as early as late March and as late as September. Most often they are seen perched on the north coaling dock on Garden Key, or in mangroves on Bush Key. As yet, there is no evidence that they nest in the area.
Long Key contains the only current nesting colony for the Magnificent Frigatebird in the continental U.S. They first nested in this area in 1988, and may be the same population that nested for 25 years at the Marquesas Keys until driven away by human disturbance. Long Key contains approximately 100 nests.
Present year-round in numbers up to about 40. Usually seen perched on buoys or roosting on the smaller islands. Since 1984, a few pairs have nested each winter/spring on Hospital and Middle Keys.