It is early March of 2010 and in the Pampas of Argentina, the land of the Gaucho, the days are growing shorter and the nights longer. The wheat crop has been harvested and the Upland Sandpiper has taken refuge in the remaining wheat stubble. Life is changing for the sandpiper in ways she does not understand. She’s putting on weight, she’s more irritable, and the cooler nights are no longer comfortable. Suddenly, one evening, without any formal announcement the excited flock of sandpipers takes flight and heads north. The long trip has begun.
The Upland Sandpiper is a long distance migrator, leaving the non-breeding grounds in Argentina’s grasslands in March and early April and flying northward over Central America and Mexico. The usual path takes them overland, west of the Gulf of Mexico, to Texas and north to the preferred breeding grounds of the upper Great Plains and southern Canada. Only a few will breed in the Mid-Atlantic states and eastern Canada.
Was it a sudden violent storm separating her from the flock, a memory of prior flight paths, a derangement of her internal compass, or just an urge to set out further to the east? Whatever the cause the Upland Sandpiper found herself over the vast Gulf of Mexico, fighting a cross wind, with no land in sight, and all alone. Thirty-six hours of this non-stop flight to the northeast took its toll. Her weight was down and she was getting dehydrated and weaker, when seemingly out of nowhere she was joined by a mixed flock of wood warblers, all heading in her direction. Being in a flock again was encouraging, but the best surprise was the small island they led her to, barely visible ahead on the pristine aqua water. But this was no ordinary island. It periphery was guarded by the brick walls of an old fort, and there was a tour boat at its dock, and people walking all around the central courtyard and snorkeling in the shallows. No matter; for the sandpiper it was rest, food, water, and renewed life.
Also in 2010 four of us decided to supplement a trip to the Florida Keys with a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 68 miles west of the Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. This small archipelago of coral islands was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the abundant turtles (tortugas). The “dry” modifier was added later to warn mariners that the island contained no fresh water source. The site has much to offer today. For my history-minded non-birder friends the large Fort Jefferson was constructed from brick in 1847 to guard our southern coast, but never completely finished. A tour through its chambers and grounds was rewarding. John James Audubon visited the island for several days in 1832 and painted several birds on site. Its most famous resident was Doctor Samuel Mudd who was held captive in the prison as a coconspirator for the killing of Abraham Lincoln. His heroic action nursed the fort’s inhabitants through a yellow fever epidemic and he was later pardoned by Andrew Johnson in 1869.
For me though, it was all about the birds. Our crossing was a little rough and several of us were a tad green, but the great thing about seasickness is it is cured quickly on terra firma. As we were leaving the boat and recovering one of the rangers called out, “Upland Sandpiper spotted in the fort!” I joined a small stampede of birders and was rewarded. There she was, with that characteristic upright pose, resting on the green parade ground. We gave her some deserved space, realizing this bird must have made an amazing journey to end up here, on Dry Tortugas, still only halfway to her final destination.
Only eight birds commonly nest in the National Park, but 299 species have been recorded there, using the islands as a migratory rest stop, peaking in April each year. The eight nesting birds are Brown Pelican, Roseate Tern, Bridled Tern, Mourning Dove, and the only nesting colonies in the United States for Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebird and Masked Booby. Birding on the island is conveniently compact. There was a small stone fountain centrally placed on the parade ground between seaside mahoe and buttonwood trees, supplying the needed freshwater for the birds. I saw several warblers at the fountain. The fort’s ramparts were a good spot to see and photograph the soaring Magnificent Frigatebirds, pelicans and terns. The approach to the dock is the best chance of seeing the nesting Sooty Terns and other birds on the adjacent Bush Key.
The trip was memorable for several reasons. First, I saw 10 life birds including my Upland Sandpiper. Secondly, I learned I needed a new camera. My birding and photography friend had been pressing me to ditch the point-and-shot and go DSLR. His pictures from the Dry Tortugas were much better than mine, as you can probably see in this post. That day was the last hurrah for the old camera and a new world of photography opened up. Lastly I learned a lesson from that sandpiper. Sometimes if you take the road less travelled and buffet the wind and stormy seas, you may end up at a beautiful island in the sun.