I visited Dry Tortugas National Park in 2013 and 2015 as part of a field class taught by Dr. Stuart Pimm at Duke University. Located 68 miles west of Key West, this 100 square mile national park is mostly open water with several islands near the Caribbean. The park is famous for its history, which is symbolized by the gorgeous Fort Jefferson, and it is treasured because of its amazing biodiversity.
The Dry Tortugas are important breeding grounds for seabirds globally. A total of 299 bird species can be spotted here, including soaring magnificent frigatebirds, loud brown noddies, and an additional six varieties of birds known to breed here. The breeding sites are well protected from tourists. Still, once you are on the islands, you cannot ignore the endless calls and tireless flights of parenting birds as they fly to the sea seeking food.
One of the most prolific breeders on the island is the black and white colored sooty tern. Every spring, around 80,000 sooty terns come here to nurture the next generation. Dr. Pimm’s field course is part of a 70-year-old effort to survey sooty terns. In order to track the population dynamics, researchers need to mark and recapture the birds regularly. Each March, a group of students from Duke University join the efforts to survey sooty terns and their habitats.