Blackbirds and Orioles

Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Bobolink is a species that typically moves through in the third and fourth weeks of April each year, with a few reports in May and a very few into early June. Early spring records include 6 April 1974, 8 April 1978, and 2 April 1990; the latter two reports both by Julie Cocke (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). They are seldom observed during fall migration and should not be expected in that season.

In spring, one of the most reliable places to see them has been at the old M&M Dairy off New Berlin Road, where you could walk the sidewalk along Port Jacksonville Parkway and look for them feeding among the grasses. Unfortunately, the old dairy is slowly being developed and new warehouses continue to go up, so in a few years it is unlikely one would see any Bobolink there.

Bobolink. Fort George Island, Jacksonville, Florida (Duval County) May 2017.

Sheffield Regional Park is also good for them, so check on the “far side” of the athletic fields toward the back of the park. There is a nice sidewalk there as well, and the Bobolinks can be found among the grasses and native blackberry bushes. Otherwise, if you’re out birding in the spring keep an eye out overhead for migrating flocks of them; they are more often seen moving in tight groups early in the morning where they are almost regular at Fort George Island, particularly at Kingsley Plantation. I’ve also had good luck seeing low flying flocks of them in late April / early May from the observation platforms along Spoonbill Pond on Big Talbot Island State Park.

Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Red-winged Blackbird is an abundant species that can be found literally anywhere there is suitable habitat and at any time of year. Regardless of their commonality, take a moment to really look at an adult male in late spring and “re-discover” how simply striking and beautiful their epaulets are! You can get excellent, up close views of them along the edge of the pond at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park in Atlantic Beach, which is probably the best place in the county to really observe them. If you find yourself on the northside, look for them around any of the smaller ponds at Sheffield Regional Park.

Red-winged Blackbird. July 2017.

Eastern Meadowlark Sturnella magna
Eastern Meadowlark is a species that is really in trouble in the eastern United States, and the Jacksonville area is no exception. Once rather common in certain areas in town, they have declined rather sharply since 2010. They are now fairly uncommon in the county, but (hopefully) are still a breeding species that can be found with some effort. Breeding records date back to 16 May through 23 June 1930, but I’m not aware of any confirmed breeding in the “modern era”.

Some of the favored locations to search for them are M&M Dairy, Sheffield Regional Park, Westside Industrial Park, the Lem Turner Road spray fields, along the Cedar Point Road corridor, and Imeson Center. Most of those areas are also experiencing overdevelopment, and I suspect that like what is now the Tidewater subdivision off Cedar Point Road, they will soon be extirpated from those locations. I used to have the best luck in winter, where in December – February I could almost always find them in front of the large warehouse at Imeson Center or at Tidewater.

Eastern Meadowlark. March 2018.

Since 2012, I rarely find them in what is left of appropriate habitat, and usually only see them sporadically in other places where I wouldn’t expect them…like single birds at Reddie Point Preserve or the saltmarsh at the end of Shark Road on Black Hammock Island. The days of seeing flocks of dozens or more Meadowlarks in Jacksonville is long past.

Yellow-headed Blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
There is one credible report of Yellow-headed Blackbird in the county’s history, which is of a bird that frequented the feeder of D. Proctor from 10-20 April 1976 (Kale, 1976). My memory is a little fuzzy on this, but in approximately 2015 or 2016 one was reported during the annual Christmas Bird Count. The account of the observation was pretty poor and didn’t inspire much confidence or credibility, not the least of which described the bird in dense salt marsh. Regardless of whether that bird shows on any CBC data, I discount the report and don’t consider it valid.

It is worth mentioning that there are a few records of Yellow-headed Blackbird from adjacent counties and just to the north in St. Mary’s, Georgia (mostly from October and November). Duval County still has plenty of suitable habitat for one to show up, so I would keep an eye out at places like the Lem Turner and Lannie Road area (although large flocks of blackbirds are scarce there in recent years), anywhere on Black Hammock Island, and Cecil Commerce Center.

Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus
Rusty Blackbirds are very difficult to find and their population is well known to be declining in the United States. In the 1970’s, it was common for them to be reported in the hundreds on the annual Christmas Bird Count and the 1973 CBC tallied a remarkable 565 birds.

Despite a few reports in early fall (including one from 16 October 1976 by Julie Cocke (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994)), the best time to search for them in Duval County is December through early February, and there are only a few select locations that are somewhat reliable. They are usually gone by March, but there have been a couple reports later in spring – one from 3 April 1971 (Kale, 1971), and the latest known report from 24 April 1966, by Roy Edwards who noted a group of 28 (Cunningham, 1966).

First, the Jacksonville Zoo’s parking lot has historically been a great spot for them. You can enter the Zoo’s parking lot for free, where you can drive towards the back and park near where the employee entrance starts. There is a small picnic area there and just to the right of that you’ll see the education center. Facing the education center, bird the trees and work left until you actually cross the driveway where you’ll find a dense swampy area. Up until at least 2017, a youth group was maintaining a short trail into those woods, allowing you to get into some great Rusty habitat.

Since 2010, Rusties have been annual in the swampy area at M&M Dairy near the corner of Port Jacksonville Parkway and New Berlin Road. Park at the warehouse parking lot to the east of this area (on the other side of the pond), and walk along the sidewalk until you’re right next to the swamp. You can stand along the edge there and search for them, but somehow the light is consistently poor at any time of day – making getting any photograph very difficult. If you miss them at this spot, bounce up the road a very short distance and try for them at Sheffield Regional Park.  At Sheffield,  “right” of the large pond at the main parking lot, and then also on the far side of that pond (there is an extensive trail system at the park that gets you about 75% of the way around that pond).

Rusty Blackbird in typical terrible light. Jacksonville, Florida.

Another semi-reliable location to look is along the “back side” of the trail circling Lake Oneida at the University of North Florida. This location has produced the largest flocks since 2005 – sometimes consisting of up to 50-75 birds, and also has what I believe is the best habitat for them. The spot is almost directly diagonal across the lake from where the trailhead near the parking lot is (there are also canoe/kayak racks there along the shore). Unlike the Zoo, M&M, and Sheffield, this location requires a parking fee ($5/day as of 2019, free on weekends).

Lastly, Westside Industrial Park off Pritchard Road has several prime locations but they are difficult to access as they are all alongside busy warehouses or businesses. If you go on Sunday, there isn’t much activity or traffic to deal with, but if you go on any other day it is important to recognize this is a busy industrial park with heavy commerce traffic. Be a “good visitor” – yield to the commercial vehicles, be mindful of trespassing, and respectful if questioned; most businesses are tolerant and understanding of birders around the properties.

Regardless of where you search for Rusty Blackbirds, please keep the use of “playback” to a minimum. This is a species in a lot of trouble and we don’t know the full extent of how playback stresses the birds, so it’s best to avoid it as much as possible. It’s not worth the “tick” on a year or county list if seeing them requires looping playback of their calls.

Brewer’s Blackbird Euphagus cyanocephalus
There are a few county reports (only one record) of Brewer’s Blackbird, but the species should be considered extremely rare and unexpected in any season. Historically, the species was reported on multiple Christmas Bird Counts, including thirty birds on 22 December 1974, six on 3 January 1976, an astounding sixty on 26 December 1994, and twenty-three on 26 December 1998. As I’ve noted in other accounts (see Winter Wren), I’m  pretty skeptical of CBC data and I don’t put too much faith in it – twenty or more Brewer’s anywhere in Florida would be remarkable.

I’ve only seen the species once in Duval County, on 5 April 2009 in a pasture off Ethel Road on the north side. Back then, this road ran perpendicular to Lannie Road and led to Thomas Creek Preserve, but since that time it is now inaccessible as it’s part of the correctional institution property and is gated off by a chainlink fence replete with razor wire. Anyway, I recall the day vividly – I was birding with Roger Clark, Gary Davis, and Dylan Beyer, and Dylan and I were deep in Thomas Creek (down another trail that no longer exists) looking for Acadian Flycatchers and Hooded Warblers, while Gary was wandering the parking lot and Roger had walked back up the road to scan the pastures. Roger called my cellphone and told us he’d found a Brewer’s Blackbird!

Brewer’s Blackbird. Jacksonville, Florida. The infamous, inaugural digiscope. 5 Apr 2009.

We hustled down there in the car and got the scope on the bird. I didn’t have any PhoneSkope or digiscoping adapter (this was really back before digiscoping was widely used), but I held my camera up and managed a few “ID shots”. We called a couple other local birders with the news, one of which poo-pooed it and said she needed to finish vacuuming the house! I don’t know if the magnitude of this rarity settled in, but she called back a few hours later with a newfound sense of excitement and urgency, asking for location details. Needless to say, she missed seeing the bird and it was not relocated. The species hasn’t been reported since then, a span now standing at ten years and running.

Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula
True to the name, this is a fairly common species throughout the area in all seasons. They can be found at Spanish Pond, Westside Industrial Park, and are pretty reliable off Heckscher Drive around Brown’s Creek Fish Camp. I would note that Boat-tailed Grackle is the (much) more abundant Quiscalus species here, so don’t just shoot from the hip on identifying a grackle here. What we have here are exclusively the “Purple” Common Grackles, not the “Bronzed” ones of the north and mid-west. Ours are notably smaller and certainly lack the bronzed finish of their brethren.

Boat-tailed Grackle Quiscalus major
Boat-tailed Grackle is also common in all seasons throughout the county, and is the much more abundant and wide-spread grackle species locally. Birders from elsewhere in Florida may be interested in the yellow eyes of our Boat-tailed Grackles, as those on the Gulf Coast and further south have dark eyes. In fact, once you get into St. Johns county just to the south, the “yellow-eyed” race becomes a significant minority (I’d guess about 15-20% of the population), and further south to Flagler or Volusia County they become a notable rarity.

Boat-tailed Grackle. January 2018.

My favorite place to observe Boat-taileds is at Huguenot Memorial Park where they are often especially gregarious…rummaging through the big blue trash bins dotting the beaches, sitting on the tops of the picnic pavilions, and posturing on the power lines near the Nature Center. If you haven’t stopped to watch the “upward neck stretch” competition between two male grackles, you’re missing out. It’s quite humorous.

Shiny Cowbird Molothrus bonariensis
Shiny Cowbird is a species that was reported almost annually from 1988 through 1999, but there are no reported observations since. The first known county record of Shiny Cowbird frequented a feeder in north Jacksonville off Yellow Bluff Road throughout the summer of 1988 (Atherton & Atherton, 1988). Rex Rowan went to see this bird at the home of Clarence Cooper, which at the time was the northernmost record in North America. Rex (rather modestly, I must say) recollected, “Clarence was an elderly sweet-natured country fellow who loved feeding birds but knew even less about them than I did…his favorite species was the Painted Bundy” (Rowan, pers. comm., 2016).

Rowan himself reported the next Shiny on 18 April 1992 (Langridge, 1992), and that was followed by one visiting Roger Clark’s yard on Fort George Island from 28-2 August 1995 – when Hurricane Erin apparently chased it off (Rowan, 1995). A pair of them then visited a feeder from 1 June through 25 July 1996, and two more visited Clark’s feeder on 6 June 1997 (Paul & Schnapf, 1995, 1996, 1997). The most recent report is also by Clark, from 13-30 May 1999, also presumably from his honey hole outside the gates of Kingsley Plantation (Pranty, 1999).

Based on the reported history above, perhaps all of the county reports of the species are from backyard feeders, so I’d encourage homeowners to be diligent in watching their stations – particularly in April through June.

Bronzed Cowbird Molothrus aeneus
I’m aware of just one report of Bronzed Cowbird in Duval County history, a bird observed in north Jacksonville. Terry West observed this bird from 1 April through 31 May 1993, but no further details are available (Langridge, 1993). I’m assuming based on the timespan of observations that this was a bird visiting a feeder, but that is nothing more than a guess. Stevenson and Anderson (1994) subsequently noted that this was the first County record, and established a “new late spring departure date for Florida”.

Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Brown-headed Cowbirds occur year-round in the county, but can be a tough species to target. Fairly reliable locations used to include M&M Dairy, Black Hammock Island, Blue Cypress Park, Jim King Marina at Sister’s Creek, and Huguenot Memorial Park – where in winter they may number up to one hundred individuals in a flock around the campgrounds. In recent years (2014-2019), this species is (very) fortunately declining locally, and is not found in even historically reliable areas with any regularity.

The first documented record of breeding in the county is from 6 June through 19 July 1971, where two groups were reported by Grimes and Markgraf (Ogden, 1971). By 1980, Julie Cocke and Peggy Powell cited three locations in Jacksonville where they were presumably breeding (Edscorn, 1980), and their abundance grew from there.

Orchard Oriole Icterus spurius
Orchard Orioles are localized breeders in Duval County and arrive back in the area in spring (there are no records or accepted winter reports). In 1969, Grimes noted a record early arrival of 23 March, which would still be considered extremely “early” by today’s standards (Stevenson, 1969). We are fortunate to have reports of breeding dating back to at least 1932 (Howell, p. 429).

Orchard Orioles are rather hit-or-miss during migration, and I most reliably see them in western Duval County in late March or early April. Places like Mecklenburg Dairy Farm and Camp Milton are good areas to check. In May through July, they can be found with some effort along the edges of M&M Dairy near the larger ponds toward Alta Drive.

Orchard Oriole on territory. Eastport Wastelands. Jacksonville, Florida. 29 May 2017.

They also breed at nearby Sheffield Park off New Berlin Road, where you can find them in the heavily foliaged areas adjacent to the athletic fields parking lot. In 2014, I found them breeding in “Eastport Wastelands” off Eastport Road and Heckscher Drive, but the area is now inaccessible. If all else fails, they also claim territory at the Jacksonville Zoo, where they can be found mostly around the area where you visit the big cats.

Orchards depart the area by mid to late August.

Bullock’s Oriole Icterus bullockii
There are five reports of Bullock’s Oriole in the county. The first comes from the Christmas Bird Count on 26 December 1983, and the second a few years later on 8 January 1989, where two individuals were observed and documented visiting the feeders at a private residence in the western part of the county. The third report is of another feeder visitor in the winter of 1993; unfortunately no further details are available (West, Wamer, & Pranty, 1994).

Roger Clark observed one at Ron Davis’s home along with twenty Baltimore Orioles on 10 December 1995 (Rowan, 1995). The most recent report is of three Bullock’s that visited a feeder on 10 April 1996 (Langridge, 1996). I wish I could find more detail on this report in particular; not only does it break the winter pattern, but three of them together anywhere in the southeastern United States would be particularly spectacular. I remain understandably skeptical of this latest report.

In general, Bullock’s Oriole is not a species that should be “expected” anywhere in Florida, but is certainly one to keep an eye out for in the winter and at feeders like the ones described.

Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
In 1967, Grimes noted that Baltimore Orioles were “now a rather common winter resident” in Jacksonville (Robertson, 1967). They are not really known to occur in summer with any regularity, but on 15 July 1968, one was observed in full song (Stevenson, 1968). Today, they are a frustrating species to me simply because I cannot seem to attract them to my yard. They are one of my favorite species and are truly just stunningly beautiful. Many homeowners are able to attract them to the feeders where they seem to be consistent throughout the winter months, but I’ve tried and failed to host them. In migration, Reddie Point or Kingsley Plantation is as good a place as any to search for them.

Page updated 25 June 2020. All photos taken by Kevin Dailey.

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