Flying to Dry Tortugas

You belong to the Cape May Warbler family. A worn-out Cape May Warbler. You’ve been flying over the open ocean for 90 miles without stopping since leaving Cuba. You’d forgotten how difficult spring migration can be.

As you look down, you see an ancient brick fort enclosing a 16-acre island. A huge grassy courtyard surrounds the fort, which is studded with palm, gumbo limbo, and buttonwood trees. Your keen eyes detect a little, freshwater fountain. The setting is too appealing to pass up! So you swoop down with hurting muscles and a strong thirst.

As you land on top of a coconut palm, you may hear the songs and cries of at least twenty additional bird species, including fifteen warbler species. Then you discover the oddest species of all: dozens of people from various nations looking at you through various black metal equipment and rushing to the bottom of the tree you’ve just sat in for a better look.

There is no doubt about that. You’ve arrived on Dry Tortugas, right in the midst of Fort Jefferson.

Tortugas is Spanish for “turtles,” and the islands are dry, with the exception of the fountain. This modest collection of seven coral reefs is located around 70 miles west of Key West. The reefs encompass 100 square miles, but just about one mile is above water. Ponce de Leon found these keys, or cays, in 1513. According to legend, he collected 160 sea turtles there, thus the name.

Dry Tortugas was a favoured haunt of pirates who raided commercial ships in the Gulf from the 1600s through the 1700s. Following the War of 1812, a slew of forts sprung up along America’s eastern shore, and Dry Tortugas became a military reserve. The United States might secure Mississippi River traffic to and from the Atlantic by erecting a fort there.

Fort Jefferson, named for Thomas Jefferson, was built on Garden Key in 1846. There had been a lighthouse constructed there twenty years before to alert mariners of hazardous shoals.

Fort Jefferson had indeed become the “Gibraltar of the Gulf” after sixteen years and sixteen million bricks. The walls were eight feet thick and 45 feet tall. In addition, the Fort could house up to 1500 men.

During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson housed over a thousand captives, the majority of them were Union deserters. Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the leg of President Lincoln’s murderer, John Wilkes Booth, was the most renowned prisoner. President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd four years later.

Fort Jefferson’s once-mighty defences became susceptible with the development of the rifled cannon. The Fort was abandoned in 1874, after multiple storms and a yellow fever outbreak that killed 38 people. During the Spanish-American War, it was reoccupied by the Navy, and soldiers were stationed there for a brief period during World War I.

Dry Tortugas National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1908 to preserve up to 100,000 Sooty Terns breeding on Bush Key. Franklin Roosevelt declared the island’s Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, and Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992.

At least 291 bird species have been recorded in the region, including seasonally resident Sooty Terns (approximately 80,000 nest on Bush Key each year), breeding Brown Noddy, Masked and Brown Boobys, Roseate Terns, and Magnificent Frigatebirds (on Bush and Long Keys). Depending on the season, white-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed boobies, and black noddys may also be spotted in the region. The majority of the other species are transients or happenstances.

Although spring migrants arrive at Fort Jefferson as early as mid-February, the bulk of them arrive between the end of March and the middle of May. If you want to come at this time, prepare for harsh weather. Storms may bring tens of thousands of birds to Garden Key. But don’t expect major consequences until late May.

Thousands of immature Sootys, up to 500 Frigatebirds, and a few spring migratory stragglers may be seen in the summer. From July through November, visitors to the Dry Tortugas may expect to witness scores of Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, and Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

However, none of these truths are as essential to you right now as flying down to the fountain, taking a long, relaxing sip, and rewarding yourself with a well-deserved bath.

For further information: visit

Transportation: From Key West, I’d recommend the Yankee Fleet catamaran (you have the option of sitting outside during the trip). Call 1-877-827-8288 or visit

Brewster Moseley is the Editor of Western Birder and Naturalist.

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