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Ecotourism on Florida's Space Coast


First Prize - Trip to the Dry Tortugas

Winning Trip to Dry Tortugas -- 4/6/2001
2000 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival's Birding Competition

By Matt Heyden

We thought it only fitting that we start our birding adventure by visiting the lovely Geiger House in Key West where Audubon stayed. A Wurdemann's Heron, full moon over the ocean, and the Yankee Freedom boat awaited us at the Oceanside Marina on Stock Island. A champagne reception aboard the Yankee Freedom gave Wes Biggs a chance to introduce the other guides and give an overview of the upcoming full days of birding. Some of us could not resist awakening at 4 am and watching the lights of Key West slip astern.

At sunrise we awoke at sea to the exhilarating announcement of pelagic birds off the bow. We all scrambled topside for a great sunrise and breakfast with formally attired black and while Sooty Terns. Pomarine Jaegers and Audubon Shearwaters were far off, but a young frigatebird gave us a very close look-over. The rich chocolate brown of the Brown Noddies was mixed in with Bridled and Sooty Terns as they worked over a weed patch. A loggerhead turtle came very close as it ate a Portuguese man-o-war.

Many other wondrous sights appeared all morning. The brilliant white fluttering flight of a flock of Roseate Terns was a joy to behold. Tiny silver flying fish actually were scared into flight, chased and snatched by Sooty Tern flocks. A navigation tower was adorned with many young Brown Boobies, topped off with two adult Brown Boobies (their white breasts a rare sight), and a female frigatebird. Dolphins occasionally showed themselves.

We had lunch moored near Fort Jefferson's Garden Key. This gave us the first view of what we would watch with amusement for the next days. The Magnificent Frigatebirds just hanging over the fort were absolutely incredible. I admit I had truly hoped to see a Sooty Tern and a Brown Noddy. What was on Bush key, now attached by sand to Garden Key, was truly beyond my wildest dreams. The hundreds of nesting Sooty Terns and Brown Noddies were overwhelming. We first used our scope to explore the closed-to-the-public island. Here were also several Golden Plovers, Great Black Back Gull young, Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, a Red Merganser, Great Blue Heron, Willets, and Killdeer.

The next day we used the Yankee Freedom's skiff for a closer look at the Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy's on nests; just wonderful. The skiff also took us to the Long Key for a look at the frigatebird colony. White-headed young frigates panted in the heat and were fed by parents. A few Brown Boobies were also on Long Key.

Over the two full days in the Dry Tortugas, we had several chances to check out the parade ground inside the fort. The trees and famous fresh water fountain gave respite to Palm, Prairie, Yellow-rumped, and Yellow-throated Warblers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and on the last morning a Shiny Cowbird. Cave Swallows, (western race) and Rough-winged Swallows darted around the third story of the fort. All were expertly pointed out by the trip's leaders. The fort has a fascinating history as told on the self-guiding walking tours and movie in the visitor center.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird getting nectar from an orange geiger tree blossom stopped us on the way to the beach area. The outer wall of the moat surrounding the fort has transitioned into a living coral reef over the years. Snorkeling beside it was an absolute joy on a hot day. We re-visited the moat wall on Sunday night for a flashlight tour of the moat and outer wall. Beside the iridescent sea creatures, the staggering number of stars visible away from mainland lights was astounding.

Sunday was also our day to explore other islands of the Tortugas. The Yankee Freedom anchored to allow us to get on the skiff and motor to Loggerhead Key. The epitome of a desert island, Loggerhead Key has a lighthouse and a few buildings. We walked the length of the island through the vegetation which was making a comeback after Australian pine removal. Here we saw life birds of different land-based lifestyles. White-winged Doves, Gray Kingbirds, a Burrowing Owl, and Antilean Nighthawk. We also got great looks at the raptors we had seen near the colonies and over the fort. Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and kestrel were common sights. Late afternoon was time for a wine, cheese, and veggie party. For "entertainment", the boat parked near Hospital Key, a tiny spit of sand. Here we watched 15 or so Masked Boobies, a rare enough sight. Upon careful inspection, the white rocks we were focusing on were fluffy white chicks being fed by parents. What a wonderful party!

The last morning at the fort and on the ride back to Key West, we continued to enjoy the sights and the sounds of these islands, reefs, and waters. Just to prove this was a great trip front beginning to end, as the boat was docking came the call of a Lesser Black Backed Gull. Awesome!

This trip was part of the Herb Kale Memorial Award (First Place) in the Beginning Adult Birders Category of the 2000 Space Coast Birding & Wildlife Festival . It was sponsored by Birdwatchers Digest and Florida Nature Tours; and won by the team known as Four Feathered Friends, consisting of Judy McHugh (Capt.), Sandy Walters, Matt Heyden, Lora Losi.

Dean Pettit       BACK to Out There Magazine
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Dean Pettit, Editor

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