Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Dry Tortugas NP, Day 1: the "sea swallow"

It took us two days to drive from North Carolina to Key West in the tippy-tip of Florida, and another wind-blown four hours by Park Service boat to reach the Dry Tortugas National Park, home of the sooty tern and of Fort Jefferson. On the trip, Stuart introduced Sonny, an NPS employee who has been working with sooty terns almost since the research began in the 1950s. We meet the boat crew, as well as David, who is following Stuart around to help produce a documentary on biodiversity.  We rock and roll - the Rebecca strait tosses and bucks like a plane in a storm, we fall into the troughs. Several students get sick despite themselves. We emerge all a little pale from the crossing. Sudden as a Hollywood sunrise, Fort Jefferson juts orange and unnatural over shallow turquoise ocean. Captain Blue docks the boat, and tumbles us ashore beside the snorkeling masks and picnic bags of the nearby commercial ferry riders.

The day floods with wide blue sky and clear sunlight. Here, the only civilized sounds are the generator at night from the NPS staff quarters inside Fort Jefferson, and the discordant beeping from the bulldozer that pushes sand from the harbor side of the island to the swim beach. This is the only place in the United States where you can see the entire Southern Cross all year long - we would have, but for the constant lighthouse beam of the waxing moon.

There were 12 of us total: undergraduates, MEMs, PhD students. We were there with two goals: To band as many sooty terns as possible, and to recover 19 data loggers placed on sooty tern legs last year. 

Although we are only there for four working days, we begin to fall into a routine:
7AM   Breakfast
8AM   Head to the colony of sooty terns
12PM Break for Lunch
1PM   Let the colony rest, sunbathe, swim, explore the fort
4PM   Head to the colony
7PM   Dinner
9PM   Hanging out, learning time, or getting ready for bed

We find a data logger on Monday afternoon, a fortuitous start to our week. The birds are utterly beautiful. Also known as the "sea swallow," sooty terns are no more than  foot from beak to tail-end. When they are not nesting, they spend almost all their time " on the wing," meaning, they never land. Instead, they sail down to the ocean's surface and grab food with their sharp beaks. Onyx wings take a tern swiftly across the sky. A narrow eye mask dashes from the arrowed beak across its  face, which like its belly is white as a tablecloth in a gourmet restaurant. We must hand-catch and handle them gently in order to band them. Beneath the soft masses of feathers they are wiry and lean, they cry angrily at us while we secure them between index and middle finger, our thumbs and 3rd and fourth fingers holding their wings down so they don't catch and snap in the wind.

That night after dinner we try to put up mist nets to catch more birds, but it is too windy and we are getting the low-flying Brown Noddies instead of the "sooties" we want. We finally fall into our sleeping bags well after dark, the wind whipping the tent canvas.

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