Frigatebirds and Sulids

Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
The earliest report of Magnificent Frigatebird in Duval County comes from around the summer of 1935 when a commercial fisherman claimed to have seen two or three birds during inclement weather around the mouth of the St. Johns River (Grimes, 1943, p. 64). Brookfield (1951) noted four off Neptune Beach on 3 June 1950; the next report followed seventeen years later on 30 May 1967 off Jacksonville Beach (Stevenson, 1967). Jacksonville Beach then produced one on 30 November 1980 (Atherton & Atherton, 1981), and five were in south Jacksonville following Hurricane Elena on 1 September 1985 (Atherton & Atherton, 1986).

There have been a few reports of Magnificent Frigatebird over the last ten years, with about half of them occurring in late August, two on 6 September 2004 (Pranty, 2005) and one as “late” as 15 December 2005 (Anderson, 2006). More recently, Bob Richter observed one some twenty miles inland at Ortega on 18 February 2016. Most recently, Marie and I observed two at Nassau Sound from Spoonbill Pond on 7 May 2020.

This is not a species that you can “target” in Duval County; unfortunately it is one that will just have to find you. I spent many thousands of hours birding along the coast in Jacksonville before happening upon a sighting. I’ve heard speculation that the best time would be after strong west winds, but have no real evidence to back that up.

Masked Booby Sula dactylatra

There is only one reported observation of the extremely rare Masked Booby in county history. The report was of a “well described” bird twelve miles offshore of Mayport observed by Chuck Hunter and Paul Beiderwell on 27 June 1980 (Edscorn, 1980).

Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Grimes (1943) described Brown Booby as “a casual straggler on our coast”, and noted that Frank M. Chapman reported up to twelve at the mouth of the St. Johns River on 11 March 1907. Almost seventy years passed before the next report on 7 September 1975 offshore of Mayport (Edscorn, 1976). Edscorn (1980) then noted two more reported six miles offshore on 27 June 1980, along with the county’s only report of Masked Booby. There was then a twenty-six year gap in reports until several sightings in 2006-2008, leading to speculation that this species was extremely rare here.

I believe Brown Booby is more regular in Duval County than we once considered, but they hang out on the east end of the jetties and rarely come further up the river. This makes seeing them very difficult unless you get out on a boat. There have been a few “up river” sightings since 2005, with one coming from Clapboard Creek in May 2008 (R. Clark) and another unconfirmed sighting from as far up river as Blue Cypress park. Additional observations include 16 May 2006, 18-22 August 2012, and 9 November 2013 from Huguenot Memorial Park.

I’ve had the good fortune to see one from Huguenot Memorial Park on two occasions noted above, but my best luck has been from my boat where I’ve seen as many as three sitting together on the jetties in June and July (22 June – 4 July 2012).

Three Brown Boobies. July 4 2012. Mayport Jetties. Jacksonville, FL.

I always scope up and down both sides of the jetties when birding Huguenot just in case I can pick out a distant silhouette. More often than not, weather conditions and heat signatures will prohibit seeing birds at that distance, but I have been able to pick one out using this method on a clear day. They are quite obviously different in size, posture, and shape than the usual pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants out there, so you will know it when you see one.

Recent reports include one photographed at the Jacksonville pier on 12 August 2017 and another recorded at Huguenot on 15 May 2019.

Northern Gannet Morus bassanus

Howell (1932, p. 89) noted a Northern Gannet killed by an airplane near Jacksonville Beach on 12 May 1924. At the time it was the latest (May) occurrence of the species in Florida, until one was recorded in 27 June 1947 in the Dry Tortugas (Sprunt, 1948). Northern Gannets typically arrive in mid-October and are abundant throughout the winter. Some linger through May now, but are gone from June all the way through late September. You can typically see them from any beach in Duval County; great vantage points are Little Talbot Island State Park, Huguenot Memorial Park, Hanna Park, and the Jacksonville Pier.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Alan Rothschild says:

    Spotted a single Magnificent Frigate Bird today off Ponte Vedra Beach near Sawgrass.

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