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Birding & Natural History PhotoTour to the Dry Tortuga's and Fort Jefferson

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Jeff D. and Theresa D.
Birding & Natural History PhotoTour to the Dry Tortuga's and Fort Jefferson


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The Dry Tortuga's is located just 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The Dry Tortuga's are comprised of 7 tropical islands (the only true tropical islands a part of the continental US.

April is peak breeding and migration season for the Tortuga's and we aim to create an amazing birding experience for novice and expert alike. Species that are common and often seen include Sooty Tern, Brown Noodies, Brown Booby, Bridled Tern, Roseate Tern, Masked Booby, Magnificent Frigate Bird, and Audubon's Shearwater.

We may also encounter many migrating species including Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the “Antillean” Short-eared Owl, Common or Antillean nighthawk, Chuck-will’s-widow, Gray Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, various thrushes, Indigo and Painted buntings, Dickcissel, Bobolink, and many others. Sky-watching often pays off with American Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons, all looking for an easy meal. On many days the falcons and kestrel's out number the warblers at Ft. Jefferson.

The islands were discovered by Ponce De Leon in 1513. Named Las Tortugas (Turtles in Spanish) and later changed to Dry Tortuga’s to warn sailors that there was no fresh water on the islands.

The US realized the strategic importance of the islands to protect shipping entering and exiting the Gulf of Mexico and started construction on the fort in 1846. The fort was never completed but was used by the Union Army as a prison during the Civil War. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned in 1869 for his humanitarian work at the prison.

This is a unique tour and costs associated with this tour need to be taken in the context of market conditions. There are really only three ways to visit the Dry Tortuga's and the surrounding keys. You can travel by air and either return the same day, or camp on the island, pack all supplies (including all water) in and prepare you own meals and return several days later. You can take the ferry from Key West and return the same day (about 3 to 4 hours at the fort) or camp at the fort and return several day late. Again, if your Camping at the fort all supplies, including all water, must be packed in. There is NO water available on at the fort or any of the other keys, hence the name DRY.

You can also travel with FCCP aboard the M/V for a unique 4 day and 3 night PhotoTour.

If you compare prices with similar tours, you'll discover that our tour is an additional night and day for almost the same price. Most (all?) tours offer a 3 day, 2 night tour for $1400 to $1700. FCCP's tour is a 4 day, 3 night tour. FCCP offers the most bang for your buck, have the best instructors and even a nurse (retired) while on the ship.

Day 1 Depart for the Dry Tortuga's

We'll depart the marina in Key West early and make our way west to Fort Jefferson. On the way we'll search for many pelagic birds including Brown Booby, Bridled Tern, Northern Gannet, Pomarine Jager, Roseate Tern, Black—capped Petrel, Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern.

We'll arrive at the Garden Key (Fort Jefferson) around noon and have lunch aboard the ship. The rest of the day will be spent exploring the fort and pristine beaches in search of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the “Antillean” Short-eared Owl, Common or Antillean nighthawk, Chuck-will’s-widow, Gray Kingbird, Black-whiskered Vireo, various thrushes, Indigo and Painted buntings, Dickcissel, Bobolink, and many others. Look skyward and you may be rewarded with views of American Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons, all looking for an easy meal of migrating warblers and other passerines.

Dinner is aboard the air conditioned ship and we can also explore the fort for shots of the Milky Way, weather permitting.

Day 2 Explore Fort Jefferson

We'll get up early and enjoy breakfast aboard the ship and then get ready to explore the fort. Today, Fort Jefferson’s massive walls provide refuge not to armies of men, but to hundreds of exhausted trans- Gulf migrants. Its shores are visited not by conquering armies from foreign lands, but by birders, naturalists, fishermen, and curious visitors. The trees within its grounds are sometimes teeming with songbirds. As many as twenty species of warblers may feed among the foliage, while mute Cattle Egrets stalk scarce prey below.

During the heat of the day we can take refuge in the shade of the trees next to a gently percolating fountain. It is often in this fashion that we have our best sightings. By simply remaining patient, we can closely study a continuous procession of birds as they come to drink. Here we have had exceptional looks at many warblers, including Blue-winged, Cape May, Black-throated Blue, Prothonotary, Worm-eating, Kentucky, Hooded, and Ovenbird.

For those participants curious about the park’s history, the park visitor center and gift shop contain books, videos, and items from the fort’s heyday. There’s also a self-guided tour of Fort Jefferson that allows visitors to explore the fort on their own.

Next to Garden Key is the huge Sooty Tern colony on Bush Key. At first light, the colony is raucous, as thousands of birds become active. Along with Sooty Terns are a few thousand Brown Noddies and numbers of Brown Pelicans. The spectacle is simply awesome, as terns and noddies come and go endlessly, and we should be able to locate some recent hatchlings. Bush Key is the only nesting site in the United States for these two species.

Adjacent to Bush Key lies Long Key, the only nesting site in the United States for the Magnificent Frigate bird. One does not need to go to Long Key to see them, however. These splendid flyers pass directly over the fort or chase hapless Royal Terns just offshore. There’s something unforgettable about seeing the frigate birds hanging over the fort walls, practically suspended in air, while the setting sun turns the sky orange.

Dinner is aboard the ship and we'll can also explore the fort after sunset an possible photographs of the Milky Way and do some painting with light of the fort itself.

Day 3 Explore Fort Jefferson

This morning, weather permitting, we’ll head west and land at nearby Loggerhead Key. Dry and sandy, Loggerhead is different than the comparatively manicured Garden Key. The island is covered in low, dense-growing vegetation that makes foot access more difficult, but most years we see something that we don’t see on Garden Key. Not to be overlooked is the famous lighthouse, built in 1856 to warn ships of the shallow water and sandy shoals. Our time on Loggerhead will depend on the productivity of the birding.

Upon leaving Loggerhead, we’ll check several buoys and park boundary markers for Roseate Terns and Brown Boobies. We’re almost always successful in locating these two species. We’ll also be sure to include a stop at tiny Hospital Key, the only site in the U. S. where Masked Boobies nest.

Later we’ll return to Garden Key for another round of exploration of the fort. Often, the turnover of species from one day to the next is amazing. By checking and double-checking the trees in and around the fort, we’re bound to turn up new species for the trip. In the Tortugas, one simply never knows what one will find! Some seemingly out-of-place wanderers can include Roseate Spoonbill, Glossy Ibis, Sora, and Upland Sandpiper.

The Tortugas are also a great place to see rarities. Highlights of previous trips have included White-tailed Tropicbird, Red-footed Booby, Black Noddy, LaSagra’s Flycatcher, “West Indian” Cave Swallow, Bahama Mockingbird, Bananaquit and Shiny Cowbird.

For anybody interested in snorkeling, the west beach offers a fine opportunity for those with the desire to explore an underwater world of coral, fish, and other colorful marine life.

Day 4 Depart for Key West

We'll have an hour or two to explore the fort and beach for new species before we pull anchor and depart for Key West. Arrival at Key West will be mid to late afternoon, depending on weather and various birding opportunities along the way.

Tour Size is limited to 11 participants, including leaders

Tour Leaders are Jeff and Theresa Donald

Jeff is a very experienced tour leader having lead tours since 1988 to destinations ranging from Yellowstone National Park to East Africa. Jeff started birding at the young age of 7 and has been birding Florida since 1978. Theresa accompanies Jeff on many of the PhotoTours and is a retired nurse and expert birder and photographer.

Tour Costs

Photo tour costs for this 4 day, 3 night PhotoTour is $1499 per person, shared occupancy. Shared occupancy means that you may share your stateroom with another person or couple. There are two bathrooms with showers aboard the ship. The bathrooms allow for private changing of cloth, bathing suits etc.

You may pay for the PhotoTour with credit card or personal check. Link for payment is above and at the bottom of the page.

What's included?

All transportation from Key West to Fort Jefferson and return to Key West. Ground transportation from the departure/arrival marina to your Key West hotel is included. Meals are also included while aboard the ship as follows: Day 1 Lunch & Dinner, Day 2 Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Day 3 Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner and Day 4 Breakfast and Lunch. Typical Meal Menu is here. Drinks and snacks are also provided while aboard the ship.

What's Not Provided?

Transportation to and from Key West, alcoholic beverages, trip insurance, medical insurance—including medical evacuation insurance, lodging on Key West, incidentals, personal items, phone calls, laundry and tips to boat crew (typically 10 to 20% of the tour cost).

Refunds and deposits?

Because of the unique nature of this trip (four days, three nights on a ship) and limited tour operators, the payment is required in full to reserve the ship. The tour cost is fully refundable if requested 120 days prior to April 16, 2020. If a refund is requested between December 16, 2019 and January 16, 2020, a fee of $500 will be deducted from the refund. Any refunds requested after January 17, 2020 will be subject to a $500 administration fee and will only be made if replacement tour participants are booked.

Spring 2022 Dry Tortugas Bird & Natural History Adventure . . . Ask me
Dry Tortuga's National Park
Key West · Key West, FL
How to find us

Complete details emailed to participants upon payment. If you have questions please call the Center at 727-365-4784

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