Trip to Florida, Part III

I certainly did not intend to take so long to post this final entry about my late-April “birding and nature” trip to Florida. I must apologize, but I was called away on a death in the family and am trying now to get back into the normal rhythm of things. So, now let’s conclude the Florida trip!

When I last wrote, my mother and brother and I had visited the Everglades in extreme southern Florida. The only place left to go from there was the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas. Unfortunately this was a short vacation and we could not spend nearly as much time as we would have liked exploring these areas, but we certainly enjoyed the time we had there.

The first “key” you arrive at after you’ve left the Florida mainland is Key Largo (of Humphrey Bogart fame). This is the largest, most populated and “touristy” of the keys with the exception of Key West. I usually try to avoid places with large numbers of people, but we did make a very worthwhile stop there at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, which boasts a beautiful aquarium, a visitors center, a film about the Gulf Coast coral reefs and a gift shop among other things. I also wandered around the grounds and took a few pictures, including these two:

(Red-bellied Woodpecker arguing with himself. We get this species here in Virginia too)

(This Cassius Blue butterfly is about the size of my thumbnail)
The Florida Keys span some 100 miles between Key Largo and Key West; they are connected by causeways and 42 bridges, including one bridge that is seven miles long. I would have loved to spend some time exploring as we drove to Key West but the day we travelled it was far too windy to see any wildlife. But the drive was just beautiful, turquoise waters and various kinds of seabirds soaring over the highway as we drove along.

That evening we went to Fort Zachary Taylor at the extreme southwest tip of Key West. We walked through the picnic areas and along a small beach as evening turned to twilight, and I took a few pictures (below), including the one of a Magnificent Frigatebird at the top of this entry.

(In the eastern United States, the Hammock Skipper occurs only in Florida)

(I did not see large numbers of dragonflies on this trip: maybe it was too early in the summer. This one is a Wandering Glider, a species that also occurs in Virginia)

The next day was the grand finale of our trip, a boat trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of small islands about 70 miles west of Key West. A large military fortress, Fort Jefferson, which is now a national park, was constructed on the largest of these islands in the mid-19th century to protect the shipping channels in the area. Over the years the fort has served numerous functions, including that of a prison. Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned here after he was found guilty of aiding John Wilkes Booth by giving him medical attention following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. (Photo above courtesy of

Years ago I went to the Dry Tortugas by seaplane; this time I thought the ferry would be the best way to travel, gliding along the glassy Gulf waters and seeing sea turtles and birds along the way. Nice idea, but on this particular day the Gulf waters were angry and very choppy as the wind continued to blow. Most of us got seasick to some extent, and my poor brother in particular got violently ill; not the peaceful and beautiful ride I had envisioned at all.

Once we got to our destination and got off the boat, we all recovered and enjoyed some wonderful birding. The Dry Tortugas are well known as a birding “hotspot,” especially during spring migration. Songbirds that migrate from Mexico and fly over the Gulf waters are often exhausted by the time they reach North America and will drop onto the first piece of land they see to eat and to rest. The Dry Tortugas are a magnet for these birds, especially following turbulent weather, and birders who go there hope they have chosen a day with a large “fallout” of these migrants.

This female Hooded Warbler was easy to approach, probably because she was so exhausted. Don’t worry about her, though; she ate a few meals and perked up nicely.
This Yellow-billed Cuckoo stopped at Fort Jefferson on its migration to more northern areas; it could very possibly be breeding in Virginia this summer).

(In North America, the Gray Kingbird occurs only in the far southeastern states, mostly in Florida.

In addition to the hoped-for songbird fallouts, birders who visit the Dry Tortugas are also treated to spectacular views of some seabird species that are very rarely seen anywhere else in North America. Bush Key is the site of a large nesting colony of Sooty Terns every year; Hospital Key hosts a few Masked Boobies; Magnificent Frigatebirds soar overhead, and Brown Noddies are numerous.

(Sooty Tern colony, above, on Bush Key, viewed from Fort Jefferson).



(Brown Noddies are a sleek, beautiful member of the Tern family of birds. You are not likely to see them in anywhere in North America other than the Dry Tortugas)

The Magnificent Frigatebird (above) has an 85-inch wing span! It is a seabird that never lands on the water, and is known for its aerial piracy of other birds’ meals; it always feeds on the wing. The photo at the beginning of this blog entry is a female, which sports a white breast; the male, above, is all black. The male’s scarlet throat patch, which he inflates to impress the ladies in breeding season, is deflated in my photo, but below you can see what he looks like when he’s in his full spendor (photo courtesy of

On the buoys near Fort Jefferson one often finds Brown Boobies (below), and we hit the jackpot that day as we headed back to Key West, finding at least a dozen on this one buoy alone.

And on that note, we’ll say good-bye to Florida, for the time being. It was wonderful to share the experience with my mom and my brother and I hope we can do it again very soon.