Cape May Hawkwatch Platform

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If you had to rate birding hotspots or favorite destinations for the eastern United States, Cape May would likely be at the top of the list.  This southern-most tip of the New Jersey peninsula was named for Captain Cornelius Jacobese Mey who explored the region in 1623.  The generations of fishermen, mariners and whalers have slowly given way to vacationers enjoying the beautiful beaches and myriad Victorian gingerbread houses gracing quaint tree-lined avenues.  But I went to Cape May for the birds, who are not there to admire the architecture.

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Merlin (Falco columbarius)

In a relatively small area you’ll find a variety of habitats including woodlands, grassy fields, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, low scrubland, and sandy beaches attracting a large variety of resident and migrating birds.  Almost anything is possible during fall migration in Cape May as the northwest winds push the vast Atlantic flyway eastward toward the coast and the birds are funneled southward until they arrive at land’s end and the formidable Delaware Bay and ocean.  The smart ones rest and feed for a few days, enjoy the scenery, and create a show to remember for us birders before continuing over the water.

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Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla); the area boasts the largest breeding population of this gull–no joke.

Cape May is one of the only places I know where the birder, dressed in our weird outfits and draped with our equipment, does not draw that quizzical apprehensive stare.  You’ll see many birders and guided tour groups daily throughout the town, and may even run into the celebrities, authors, and gurus of our hobby.  There are far too many birding sites in the area to discuss here, but one of my favorites is the Hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park.

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Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Hawks have been watched and counted there for years but the counter became a formal paid position of the New Jersey Audubon in 1976 when they hired 24 year-old Pete Dunne.  The stump of an old telephone pole was the first platform, soon replaced by a plywood table built by Dunne himself.  Despite these humble beginning he, of course, is now one of our most accomplished birders and authors.  The platform itself has also grown to become a large, multi-tiered edifice and famous destination for birders, hosting 20,000 visitors in 2015.  It’s in a perfect location halfway between the dunes and beaches to the south, the tree line to the north, and directly faces a shallow saltmarsh to the east.  Curiously the migrating kestrels tend to hug the shoreline while the hawks pass east to west over the tree line.  Just to the west is the famous lighthouse, restrooms, visitor center, and plenty of free parking.

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Think of a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon in autumn.  There are different football games playing on multiple large screen TV’s while “experts” multitask, keeping one eye on one game and the other eye elsewhere; at the same time debating over a cold beer on the wisdom of the last play call and the preferred strategy for the next.  That’s the hawk-watch platform during autumn migration; just substitute birds for the TV pigskin and bottled water for the beer.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

On the top tier of the platform and far to the right you’ll find the official counter.  He or she is the one constantly scanning the sky and often calling out the birds while they are still specks in the distance. “Merlin heading to the right between the two fluffy clouds, one binocular field-of-view to the left of the lighthouse!”  They amaze with their knowledge of characteristic flight patterns, wing flapping, and silhouettes, but you soon begin to learn their techniques and try your luck.  If you’re brave you may even call out a bird sighting yourself, but be prepared to be politely corrected if you blunder.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

As in the sports bar you can choose to just sit quietly and enjoy the birding banter.  Someone on the right is reliving an amazing count total from the past while someone on the left is describing recent trips to birding hotspots in Arizona and Maine.  Another expert is holding forth on the best camera, lens, or field guide while on the lower tier the Swarovski Optik representative (they are the corporate sponsor of the count) is hawking their wonderful scopes and binos.  While just sitting there I learned about the distinguishing dark carpal bands on the Common Tern and how to recognize the aggressive flapping flight of a Merlin, the “falcon with attitude”.  One made a low flyover right in front of us unsuccessfully chasing a fleeing sandpiper across the pond.

Greater Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marines); look carefully to see his songbird prey

They count more than hawks from the platform with plenty of songbirds, waders, gulls, and shorebirds also called out.  My days at the platform were relatively quiet with a warm southern wind blowing in from the bay.  However, the day before I arrived they counted 91 American Kestrels and two days earlier had 325 Bobolinks coming in on more favorable NW winds.  The most common bird of prey which I saw was the Merlin, coming in seemingly every 10 minutes one mid-morning.  Extremely “big days” are possible.  Pete Dunne counted 11,096 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 9400 Broad-winged Hawks on 10/4/1977!  Oh, to have seen that!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

There is no such thing as a bad birding day at Cape May.  And if the birds seem scarce just check out the “Hawkwatch Sports Bar” and you’re sure to pick up some tips or meet a celebrity birder.  There’s a counter there everyday from dawn to 5PM,  September 1 till November 30.

Where Have All the Swallows Gone?

Tree Swallow

Barn and Tree Swallows

Gliding, diving, graceful birds

Acrobats in flight.

On a boring day in May, June, or July you can always sit on the porch with a cool drink and watch the swallows.  This year the Tree Swallows won the annual competition for the birdhouse down by the creek, the one with the water view, and the Bluebirds were again relegated to the other two houses along the driveway.  I don’t pick favorites as both have great appeal.  The birdhouse by the water does have some issues as the smart Fish Crows from the neighbor’s trees are always poking their large bills through the hole, trying to snag a hatchling for lunch.  The parents do a brave job driving off the much larger crows, but I fear they are not always successful.  That doesn’t seem to stop the swallows from coming back here year after year.

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Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustic,                   click on any photo to zoom

The entertainment is their airshow.  Swooping, sharp corners, straight up, diving low over the grass and river, catching insects, eating and drinking, even in flight.  In my book only the terns can rival the swallows in aerial acrobatics.  The Tree Swallows arrive first in the spring to stake out a nesting cavity, and stay later in the fall since they are the only swallow that can also feed on berries when the bugs are no longer plentiful.  The later arriving Barn Swallows almost exclusively build their mud nests on man-made structures–in my yard that’s the underside of the boat dock.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird at the “loser’s” house

The “Barnies” are the only North American swallow that has that deeply forked swallow tail.  It, plus the chestnut colored throat make the ID easy.  The Tree Swallows are striking birds with pure white below and metallic blue or green above, depending on the light.  These are the most common swallows in the East, but keep an eye out for the Bank S. with its dark chest band, the less sociable and more bland Northern Rough-winged S., and an occasional Cliff S. with its buff rump and forehead.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallow flock

Then one evening in late July you notice they’re gone.  No fanfare or goodbyes, just gone, show’s over.  The birdhouse and dock are vacated.  And why did they leave so early?  There are still plenty of bugs, warm weather and sunshine, and maybe even enough time to raise another brood.  But I’ve learned that they are not gone.  The swallows haven’t really left for the season yet, but have changed their venue.  Just travel a few miles east to the inland fields with power lines or the vast tidal marshes along Delaware Bay and you’ll find them again.  You’ll see flocks, sometimes huge mixed flocks of swallows, no longer interested in breeding but now more intent upon consuming large volumes of insects and storing up energy for the coming fall.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Stelgidopteryx serripennis

The fall migration is a much bigger deal than its spring counterpart.  A successful breeding season will swell the flock many times over the number of birds that arrived the previous spring.  But there’s danger ahead.  Its been reported that the mortality rate for songbirds during the fall migration and at the wintering sites may be as high as 85% due to disease, predators, accidents, weather, etc.

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Tree Swallows, Tachycineta bicolor

 Flocking prior to and during fall migration, and continuing all winter, may in part be a safety mechanism to confuse predators with visual overload.  As opposed to most songbirds the swallows migrate in these large flocks during daylight, perhaps relying on visual clues for guidance.  This also allows them to feed on the fly.  The Tree Swallows will actually undergo a gradual molt during the trip to South Florida, the Gulf coast, Cuba, or Mexico, whereas the “Barnies” wait to molt until they have arrived at the wintering grounds in South America.

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Coastal flock prior to fall migration

So the swallow’s sojourn in their summer breeding grounds appears to be a two part affair.  First mate, nest, and raise the young.  But when that’s accomplished congregate in great numbers, fellowship, teach the juveniles advanced flying skills, and build up fat reserves for migration.  And when the mysterious word is spoken, whether it’s hormonal, sunlight, or temperature, be ready to head south en masse.  Their return in the spring will not be in massive flocks but rather in smaller groups of survivors, coming north to start the cycle all over again.

What’s Up With the Martins?

Purple Martin

Purple Martin, Progne subis

The last of April and early May were remarkable for the cold, wet weather here in Maryland and throughout the Mid-Atlantic.  I heard we had 14 straight days of measurable rain and the thermometer was clearly forgetting that the spring equinox was six weeks ago.  As we pulled into our rural road, returning from a hot supper out, there was a good-sized flock of Purple Martins, maybe 25 or 30, blocking our way.  As I slowed down surprisingly only a few flew away and even those birds quickly landed a short distance further down the road as if to claim it for themselves.  I ran an obstacle course through them trying hard to straddle as many as possible.  What was going on?  These were not the usual energetic, swooping, and vocal swallows one usually sees each spring.  The next morning the martins were still on the road, but now there were several squashed bodies of those that had refused to yield to traffic.  This went on for several days and the body count mounted until the survivors finally disappeared.

Purple Martin

Martin roadblock; note the droopy tail and wings

About this same time I was at a party where friends of mine recounted another episode of strange martin behavior occurring about the same time in the cold and drizzle.  This couple are bird lovers and astute observers of the flora and fauna in their yard. They noticed a martin with unusually droopy wings perched on the porch of their Purple Martin house.  He flew away when they investigated with a ladder but one of the apartments was jammed with five other stuporous martins.  The entry to another apartment was blocked by a dead bird, and when he was removed another five birds flew out the now open door.  What’s going on?

Purple Martin

male

As you probably know Purple Martins are long distance migrants. The older scouts first arrive in the Chesapeake region in the second half of March, seeking their prior year’s nesting site.  The younger birds make the long trip from South America up to four weeks later.  The martins are the largest New World swallows and the only swallows displaying sexual dimorphism–the sexes look different. The eastern subspecies has the unusual trait of almost entirely depending upon man-made cavities for nesting.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago Native Americans in the east started hanging hollowed-out gourds to attract the sociable martins.  European settlers noticed this and expanded the practice which we continue today.  After thousands of generations of birds using these man-made nesting sites the eastern martins have essentially abandoned the use of natural cavities.

Purple Martin

Click on any photo to zoom

The concept of long distant and massive bird migrations has not always been known.  This makes sense since until the end of the 15th century we weren’t even aware of the distant continents themselves.  There was a general idea that the disappearing fall birds were hibernating somewhere, just like the frogs, turtles, and some mammals.  I’ve read old accounts of torpid spring martins that were assumed to be waking up from their winter’s sleep and wonder if they were describing the same behavior of our martins last month.

Purple Martin

Progne subis

So here’s my theory of what’s going on with the martins.  They are tough birds but after a two thousand mile migration their body weight is significantly reduced and the birds are vulnerable.  The ill-timed cold snap and rains greeted them in their already weakened state making it difficult to fly, or even avoid an oncoming car.  Martins usually forage during flight, but if they are too weak to fly hunger will compound their plight.  Possibly the flying insects they feed on were also in short supply due to the inclement weather.  I’ll bet they were huddled in the apartment and on the dark road in a last desperate search for warmth.  In the open they were clearly easy prey for predator hawks as well as the squashing cars.

Let me know if you’ve noticed similar behavior or if you have any additional thoughts.  It may well be a tough breeding year or two for the martins, at least in our neck of the woods.

Spring Migration III: The Red Knots vs. The Horseshoe Crabs

Red Knot; photo courtesy of Hans Hillewaert

Red Knot; photo courtesy of Hans Hillewaert

Horseshoe Crab; female with male in tow

Horseshoe Crab; female with male in tow

The contestants could not be more different; the venue is the shoreline of Delaware Bay each May and early June; the prize is the ultimate–survival as an individual and as a species.  For those of us who live around the bay, this annual saga is well known, but for those who don’t, its a story worth hearing.

The Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) gets no respect.  It is an unattractive, prehistoric, lumbering bottom dweller of the estuaries, more closely related to spiders than crabs.  It dates back 450+ million years, several hundred million years before dinosaurs, and therefore before birds and the Red Knots.  The fact that it hasn’t changed much over that span speaks volumes to its design however unbecoming.  The domed hinged carapace protects a creature that moves with 5 paired extremities and drags a threatening appearing tail. The tail is only used to flip it back over if the surf upsets it.  Its genus name “Limulus” means askew and “polyphemus” refers to the giant cyclops from Homer’s Oydyssey.  There are two small median eyes, hence the “cyclops” designation, but surprisingly there are two other paired eyes on the lateral carapace and multiple additional eyes on the sides and ventral surface near the mouth to track you coming and going and assist with feeding .

Even the Robins get involved

Even the Robins get involved

Each spring something stirs in the loins of the male crabs and at high tide, around the time of a full or new moon, they start patrolling the shoreline, parallel to the beach, looking for the gravid, larger female coming ashore.  If he’s lucky he finds one and attaches himself to her back for the ride with the tide up the beach.  After she digs the sand nest and lays 60 to 120 THOUSAND eggs he contributes his part of the genome.  The unlucky males are called satellites and relieve their tension by finding any unoccupied nest and doing their part.

The venue, Delaware Bay, is much younger than the contestants. We tend to think of our earth as static and go to great lengths to try to preserve it just as it is, but things constantly change. 15,000 years ago there was no Delaware Bay, but just a long Delaware River Canyon extending out to the sea at the continental shelf. As the Ice Age passed and earth warmed, the water level gradually rose over 100 feet, slowly drowning the river valley and widening the tidal estuary to its current dimensions.

View from Dupont Nature Center deck

View from Dupont Nature Center deck

The Red Knot (Calidris canutus rufa) is the beautiful cinnamon colored world traveler, spending our winter on the windswept tidal flats of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia and migrating 9300 miles northward, usually with just two stops. This is one of the longest migratory bird routes.  The first stop is the Brazilian coast at Lagoa do Peixe, feeding on clams and snails and doubling their weight before the strenuous, 5-8 day, non-stop, 7000 mile trip to Delaware Bay.  Somehow rufa knows that the time to arrive in Delaware is when the army of horseshoe crabs are pulling themselves ashore and depositing their myriad eggs.  Wasted and starving, the birds arrive to feast on the eggs and replenish body fat for several weeks before the final 2400 mile leg to the Arctic breeding ground.

Shorebird Frenzy;  The Red Knots are grouped near the waterline

Shorebird Frenzy; The Red Knots are grouped near the waterline

The best place to witness this on the west side of Delaware Bay is at the DuPont Nature Center at Mispillion Harbor Reserve and nearby Slaughter Beach.  The center is a small observation house, education center, and deck on stilts giving you spotting scope views of the surrounding tidal flats and marsh.  Lighthouse Road leading to the center takes you along a huge grass wetland, home for abundant Seaside Sparrows and Clapper Rails. Slaughter Beach, about a mile to the south, gives you a chance for close-up views of all the action.

DuPont Nature Center

DuPont Nature Center

Seaside Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow

Willet

Willet

Timing is everything for this event; for the birds, horseshoe crabs, and for the birder.  I finally had a free day in late May and made the trek across the Delmarva Peninsula and was lucky enough to see this saga, almost.  The birds and crabs were there, but it was low tide on Slaughter Beach and the water line and birds were across a wide mudflat and only visible with scope and telephoto lens. What I didn’t anticipate was the teeming frenzy of many kinds of shorebirds and gulls; this feast is not just for the Red Knots.  Forget about counting birds, there are just too many.

Red Knots and friends at breakwater, Mispillion Harbor

Red Knots and friends at breakwater, Mispillion Harbor

Unfortunately both the Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knot populations are under stress.  The crabs have been over-harvested for eel bait, and their blue blood is drawn and used for a medical test for bacterial endotoxins.  They are returned to the bay after blood drawing, but the mortality rate may be as high as 30%.  Their population has declined 90% in the last 15 years.  The birds are stressed by the fewer crab eggs as well as the loss of habitat at both ends of their route and stopover points.  Their numbers in South America are down 50% since the mid 1980’s. There are currently some measures enacted to address all this, but only time will tell.

This saga of Delaware Bay is not really a one-on-one competition as the title of this post suggests, but rather a win-win or at least a draw. The Red Knots successfully regain their weight and strength feasting on the eggs and set out again on the final leg of their long migration to their breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra.  But what does the Horseshoe Crab get out of all of this?  For the crab, survival is a numbers game.  Its strategy is to overwhelm the sandy beaches with trillions of fertilized eggs, so even the ravished shorebirds can’t find them all before the next high tide washes the eggs to sea.  This has worked for hundreds of millions of years.

Spring Migration II, Magee Marsh, Ohio

Magee Marsh

Magee Marsh

Spring migration reminds me of a passage near the beginning of Melville’s Moby Dick when Ishmael senses the periodic urge to go to sea.  He knows it’s time when he finds himself “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet”… and requiring “a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off.”  Migrating birds and birders feel a similar deep-seated urge each spring, one, to leave the wintering home and migrate to fertile breeding grounds, and the other, to leave the warm, comfortable fireside and head outside to observe the action and spring awakening.

Lake Erie shoreline at Magee Marsh

Lake Erie shoreline at Magee Marsh

Something came over me in my birding life about 10 years ago, not suddenly like a lightning strike or a eureka moment like the one that caused Archimedes to run naked from the bathtub into the street proclaiming his theory of buoyancy, but still quite rapid and profound.  In short order I went from a casual, non-possessed birder to one where I cannot drive and walk anywhere without looking up, checking the power lines, or listening for the next bird. I have a hard time not buying the latest bird book or subscribing to the newest bird magazine, not to mention acquiring more camera paraphernalia.  I’m not sure what caused this “affliction” and I understand from others that there is no cure.  One symptom is the urge to travel to birding hot-spots during spring migration, such as the Magee Marsh on the southern shore of Lake Eire.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Magee Marsh is a rural flatland part of Ohio about halfway between Toledo and Sandusky.  I hope the locals forgive me when I say there isn’t much going on there, but the migrating warblers and songbirds just love it.  Apparently these neotropical birds heading for the forests of southern Canada are about running on empty when they come to the massive waters of Lake Eire. Lucky for us many cry uncle and take a few days of R&R in the sheltered treelined shore and marsh before proceeding northward.  Others with more stamina push on over the lake and make it to Point Pelee on the Ontario shore, another birding hot-spot.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Bird migration is one of the wonders of the natural world, not well understood in ancient times.  Aristotle thought that the summertime redstart became the winter robin, and the warbler morphed to a black-cap.  Thanks to radar, GPS, banding, and tedious observation, the amazing scope and distances of migration have more recently come to light.  The wood warblers do much of their traveling at night.  This gives them cooler temperatures, more humidity to lessen dehydration, less wind, freedom from predator hawks, and the potential of celestial navigation.  Some hardcore birders spend the dark May nights, lying on their backs, listening to the waves of chirping songbirds streaming north, identifying the mingled songs of flight.  I’m not there yet.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

My first and only visit to Magee Marsh was several Mays ago, one week after the popular yearly birding festival, and therefore after the crowds had thinned somewhat.  Although you can bird in surrounding areas, the best location is clearly the less than one-mile-long boardwalk paralleling the shore through the wooded wetlands.  I don’t believe I’ve ever been at a site where the warblers were so abundant and close.  Leave your 500mm+ lenses and tripods home–you need the mobility of lighter gear to catch these elusive gems as they dive in and out of cover.  You soon learn that the warblers each have their own feeding pattern.  The Black-and-whites and Palms hug the trunks and large limbs, the Yellow-rumped and Chestnut-sided like the lower to mid-level branches, and the Cerulean and Cape May favor the canopy.

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

I found the other birders along the boardwalk courteous and helpful, more than willing to help make a difficult ID.  If you look for flocks of birders bunching up on the trail you’ll usually be treated to a good bird.  Thats the way I saw the camouflaged American Woodcock on the ground and Common Nighthawk sleeping along a high branch.  It also led me to a Yellow Warbler on a nest.  She obviously had abandoned any thought of crossing the lake and had just set up housekeeping right there.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Warbler identification is one of the most difficult challenges for a rising birder.  There are 56 species found in the United States and Canada. The bright spring plumage helps somewhat but they vary per season, sex, and age.  Their songs are often beautiful but confusing, and they just plain don’t hold still long enough to let you carefully note their field marks and fire off a shot.  I’m frequently at a loss whether to reach for the camera or binoculars.  Alas, we now have the warbler magnum opus; The Warbler Guide by Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle, published in 2013.  This exhaustive guide to these birds amazes me every time I pick it up.  In addition to the standard field marks it has sections on contrast & color, shape-size-behavior (the gist of the bird), the face, the body, and the undertail.  Where else can you go to see 56 undertails or faces all lined up on one page.  This book is too heavy and large to carry in the field but works well as a home reference, especially on the winter nights when we long for next spring’s migration to begin.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

As excited as we are with the warblers arriving each May, all decked out in their finest attire, we know it will not last.  Come autumn they’ll depart with less fanfare, the hard work of reproduction done.  Even their drabber fall plumage will reflect our melancholic awareness of a season slipping by and the approach of another winter.  Magee Marsh gave me three delightful days of birding several years ago–one never forgets their first siting of the Blackburnian warbler in his breeding best.  I hope to go back soon.

Spring Migration Stopover, Dry Tortugas

Upland Sandpipers, James Audubon

Upland Sandpipers, John James Audubon

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.

Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

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.

Brown Pelican,  J. J. Audubon

Brown Pelican, J. J. Audubon

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.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

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.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

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.