This year I'm trying to become a better birder, and that involves tacking many of the bird families which I've never seen before. I'll preface this by saying I have zero experience with both Noddy species. After studying various field guides, reading eBird reports, and viewing rich media checklists, including photos of birds at the Dry Tortugas, I felt ready to take on all the Noddies the Tortugas could throw at me... That ended up being thousands, and honestly it was overwhelming!
I wasn't sure finding a Black Noddy on a quick trip to the Dry Tortugas was likely- if even possible. I had heard that someone had already spotted one this year, but without photos I was skeptical of a secondhand report through eBird. Even if there wasn't a prior report, finding a Black Noddy among thousands of Brown Noddies is like searching for a needle in a haystack. But if searching for the Common Crane in Texas last month taught me anything, it was to be patient, and look for the odd bird in a flock. So that's what I did.
After getting off the boat and getting settled into my campsite (I turned a single day trip into a 3-day stay- a story I'll share in a separate post) I grabbed my scope and headed to the sand bar connecting Lighthouse Key and Bush Key. There was a sign which noted the boundary, and it seemed it had been moved closer than in past years, see John Puschock's #ABARare report from 2012.
Setting up my scope, I figured that I was prepared for the subtle differences between Black Noddy. Looking at the distant birds, multiple Noddies struck me as just a little different- and in the next hour I ironed out the differences between several first year birds and adults, and males and females. Surprisingly the heat shimmer, moving birds, and wind made getting a good look at the birds difficult. I moved on top of the fort, scoping from a higher vantage point allowed me to see over the bushes that have grown in since John's previous report. Thoughout the day I checked the coaling docks, and found that the perched noddies turned over every hour or so, with new ones landing on the docks coming in from the ocean or the nesting colony. Multiple times a mass exodus occurred, pressured by one of the four Peregrine falcons present on the island. Two adults (a possible nesting pair?) occupied the tall radio antennae, and they tolerated a juvenile hanging around. The third adult perched at be far side of the colony right along the beach, and I didn't see him until my second day, but I'm sure he was there all along.
Throughout the day, I scanned the noddies at the coaling docks and colony five times. Right after the Yankee Freedom departed, I went to check the coaling docks again, and spotted a single Noddy on the last one (see photo)
My first thought was "the color of this bird doesn't match the rusted coaling dock. Hmmm."
The bird was preening after flying in from the ocean, and getting an overall impression of size and shape was difficult as the bird changed shape- first spreading out its wing, and preening it's breast facing away. Several minutes later a Brown Noddy landed on the same platform, offering an initial size comparison. At this point I still wasn't fully convinced as the Black Noddy continued to preen facing away from me and was generally uncooperative. I was starting to get excited and continued observing it, digiscoping a few doc shots "just in case"
I soon got a good look at the head, and the white crown extended further on this bird and my views through the scope were stunning. This bird had an obviously longer, thin straighter bill. Structurally this bird was smaller in size than the adjacent Brown Noddy and I had several minutes to observe through the scope and gain some traction with the ID. At this point I was confident I had a Black Noddy, but nobody was around to share it with! I snapped a few photos and hoped it would be easy to find the next day. Long story short, it wasn't.
Hopefully this bird will stick around and can be observed by others on future trips. I did make a strong effort the next couple days to relocate it, as I saw so many birds that this one melted into my other "possible" BLNO sightings, which may have been the same bird, or a Brown Noddy under tricky lighting against a light background. It was really kind of tough picking out far away birds with the wind and heat distortion, but doable when the clouds came in and late afternoon light was ideal. Only after returning to Key West and looking at my photos on a large screen the differences were obvious, but I sought a second opinion from several experienced birders who all confirmed it from my photos. Sweet!
I will update my blog shortly with more images and birds from the dry Tortugas. Now it's 8am and I have a Thick-billed Vireo to find.