Dry Tortugas National Park – April 21, 2013

Intro / Description

One of the Photography Interest Group members (Kevin M.) wanted to visit the Dry Tortugas during bird migration.  I’d always wanted to see it too and I’d never been to the Everglades so I suggested we combine a trip.  He organized an extended expedition and we set off last Saturday with Kevin K. in a packed Prius headed for Key Largo – our base of operations.  Since there’s so much to cover, I’ll tell you about the Dry Tortugas in this post, and fill you in next time on the Everglades and a few other places we went.
The Dry Tortugas are a remote group of seven small islands / keys (named Garden, Loggerhead, Bush, Long, East, Hospital, and Middle) located about 70 miles west of Key West.  These islands and the surrounding waters make up the 100 square mile Dry Tortugas National Park.  It’s known for its isolation, clear waters, unique and migratory bird populations, shipwrecks, and Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson Parade Grounds pano
Fort Jefferson Parade Grounds – Dry Tortugas National Park, Garden Key – I’m not sure which bird is in the center top. It looks like either the Perigrine Falcon or Cooper’s Hawk we saw earlier in the day. This is a 7 image, stitched pano (~50 megapixels). I uploaded a larger than normal version. If you want to see more detail, click on this image and then on Flickr select actions/view all sizes.

Fort Jefferson construction took place from 1846 to 1875.  It’s the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere but was never completed.  Like many other forts, it became obsolete when rifled cannons were put into use.  Photo ops lurk throughout  – so be alert and explore!

Fort Jefferson Interior
Inside the Fort Jefferson walls – I’m happy that two people strolled into my composition. They couldn’t have positioned themselves any better. The fort housed prisoners in the Civil War era and these two and their appearance in this IR, B&W photo add to the ghostly feel of the fort.

There’s a lot of interesting background and history about this place.  Dr. Samuel Mudd (convicted of conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination and later pardoned) was imprisoned here.  There’s also an interesting novel I enjoyed reading in Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series that takes place here (Flashback).  It covers a lot of historical background too.

Info for Photographers

The easiest way to get to the park is via the Yankee Freedom that departs Key West daily.  They provide everything you’ll need for a day trip.  If you’re more adventurous, you can charter a sea plane or an extended cruise on a smaller boat, or even take your own boat.  If you don’t take the Yankee Freedom, just make sure you do your research and go prepared.  The park is primitive and there are no supplies / food / water for visitors – so bring everything you might need.  As of April 2013, the Yankee Freedom is only 6 months old and in great shape.   A buffet breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and water / soft drinks / hot coffee all day are included in the fare.  And you can return to the boat during the day to use the rest rooms or cool off in the air-conditioning.  All three of us thought the ship and crew were excellent.

Brown Noddy in flight
Brown Noddy in flight

The day we went, about  30 – 40% of the passengers were birders – some of them very experienced.  Several bird species are found in the Dry Tortugas and nowhere else in North America.  It’s also on the main  fly way for birds migrating between Central America / Cuba and the rest of North America.  In late April / early May, it’s a vital resting place for the birds.  John James Audubon visited in May of 1832 and spent several days cataloging species.  I’m certain we didn’t see as many as he did, but we did pretty well.  Kevin M. and I each got several life birds.  Here’s our list from the few hours we were there:

Masked Booby (nesting), Brown Booby, Brown Noddy, Bridled Tern, Sooty Tern, Roseate Tern, Common Tern, Least Tern, Audubon Shearwater, Magnificent Frigate Bird, Northern Gannet,

Yellow Warbler, Palm Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Blue Wing Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Northern Parula,

American Redstart,  Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Baltimore Oriole, Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird, Chuck-Will’s Widow, Indigo Bunting,  Ruby Crowned Kinglet,  Black Whiskered Vireo,

Grey Catbird, Peregrine Falcon, Coopers Hawk, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, Cave Swallow, White Winged Pigeon, Ruddy Turnstones, Laughing Gull, Osprey, Brown Pelican, Cattle Egret, and Snowy Egret.


Singing Scarlet Tanager
Singing Scarlet Tanager – Fort Jefferson parade grounds

Here’s a couple of links to info maintained by one of the Yankee Freedom crew (Chelsea):  Dry Tortugas Birding Blog and Dry Tortugas Birding info.  Check them before you go for current information.

Photo hints:

You’ll be doing a lot of walking and climbing and there aren’t any lockers where you can leave excess gear (although the crew says they’ve never had a problem with lost / stolen equipment).  Pack only what you can carry around all day.


Allowed and a good idea if you need it for your birding lens.  Otherwise, just to lighten your load I wouldn’t recommend it.  I was able to hand hold / brace my cameras and didn’t miss my tripod.  You’ll want to plan differently if you’ll be there for sunrise, sunset or at night.


Unfortunately, if you’re going for both scenic landscapes and birds (and why wouldn’t you?), you’ll need a variety of lenses.  Long / bright for the birds and wide for the landscapes.  There are also photo ops from the boat that will be quite challenging unless your camera body or lens has stabilization.  You’ll pass about 100 yards from a colony of Masked Boobies on Hospital Key as you enter the park.  Be ready for a unique and challenging chance to capture these birds on the nest with chicks.  And if you miss the Brown Boobies while you’re at the fort, be sure to watch for them as you leave.  They often hang out on Marker 3.

Best time to visit:

Late April / early May is the best time of year for birds, although it’s already getting hot by then.  If you’re even a bit of a birder, it’s worth putting up with the heat.


Our trip over was on a fairly calm day.  Even so, there was quite a bit of pitching and tossing.  If you’re at all susceptible to seasickness, you should take something in advance.  Also, be ready for weather at the park.  A poncho and camera cover for rain, and sun block or long sleeves and a hat for the tropical sunshine.  You won’t have problems with insects since there’s no standing fresh water on the islands.

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet – Floating near the dock in the Dry Tortugas


Wow – what a fantastic trip!  We had a wonderful time in this remote and fascinating place and it’s now a new favorite of mine.  It takes some time and effort to get to, but there is so much to see and photograph – don’t miss it!

My Gallery /  Flickr photo set: My Dry Tortugas set on Flickr

Kevin M’s Dry Tortugas set on Flickr

Kevin K’s set on Flickr

Website:  http://www.nps.gov/drto/index.htm
Address / Phone: Location in Google Maps

There’s no phone, but you can email the park from this website:  http://www.nps.gov/drto/contacts.htm

Central Florida Photo Ops Rating:  Don’t miss it!!!

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some photos!

©2013, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.

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