Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Red-throated Loons occur annually and arrive as early as mid-November, but can best be seen from shore in mid-to-late December and throughout January; some linger into early February. Indeed, the oldest known report comes from Harold Axtell, who reported five individuals off Atlantic Beach on 2 February 1940 (Grimes, 1943). Other early reports include six birds observed at Huguenot on 21 January 1951 (Brookfield, 1951). Stevenson and Anderson (1994) noted a report from Jacksonville Beach on 8 November 1973 as the earliest credible report in that season for the State of Florida.
Unless you have access to a boat, the best way to find them is to do a seawatch from a stationary position along the coast. Years ago Roger Clark showed me the “spot”, which is from the end of the northernmost boardwalk in the northernmost parking lot of Little Talbot Island State Park (map and link to directions, entry fee required). Set up your scope from the end and it’ll give you about 10 feet of height off the beach, and you can scan 180 degrees of the shoreline. This is an excellent spot for both Red-throated and Common Loon, so make sure to study the field marks carefully. It is also a great spot to see migrating waterfowl and Horned Grebe. Scan the shorelines in both directions for Piping Plover while you’re there, and the dunes behind you regularly have Bald Eagle and Northern Harrier cruising the area. On 19 January 2001, Clark had an amazing high count of 282 Red-throated Loons from this overlook (Anderson, 2001).
Huguenot Memorial Park is just south of Little Talbot Island and can also yield Red-throated Loons, but it is often a little more difficult to spot them since there is not an elevated platform from which to scan. They can sometimes be found in the interior lagoon but also in the St. Johns River.
Note that Red-throated Loons are not reported every year, it seems like they’re observed in Duval County about two out of every three years.
Arctic Loon Gavia arctica
Hoffman (1984) reported an Arctic Loon was “observed carefully” at Ward’s Bank (now called Huguenot Memorial Park) 26-27 December 1983. There are no further details, but the American Ornithological Union (AOU) split Arctic/Pacific Loon around 1984-85; it’s possible the species is what we’d consider Pacific today – either way any exceptional report.
Pacific Loon Gavia pacifica
There is just one remarkable report of Pacific Loon, a bird observed by Peggy Powell and Virge Markgraf at Jacksonville Beach on 26 December 1983 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).
Common Loon Gavia immer
Common Loons are the predominant Loon species in Duval County and northeast Florida, and can be found beginning around the first week of November through the first week of May. In November, look for them during seawatches as loons and ducks migrate just offshore. Huguenot Memorial Park, Little Talbot Island State Park, and 16th Ave S in Jacksonville Beach are prime viewing locations. Throughout the winter, they are perhaps best observed at Huguenot; check the river, the ocean north of the jetties, and in the lagoon for them. They are extremely uncommon in summer, but one in full breeding plumage was recorded on 11-12 June 1980 at an apartment complex’s retention pond (Edscorn, 1980).
Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps
Pied-billed Grebes can be found year-round in Duval County, but are difficult to find in May through August. During those months, check the ponds at places like Reddie Point Preserve, Blue Cypress Park, or the ponds in the Imeson Center or Westside Industrial parks. Grimes (1943) studied this species fairly extensively for two decades in the early 1900’s and his assessment was they occurred in low numbers during the breeding season, and almost exclusively in freshwater ponds such as the ones just suggested. Today, they are still known to be a localized breeding species, with the earliest known nesting occurring 25 May 1930 (Howell, 1932, p. 77).
In September through April, Pied-billed Grebes can be quite abundant and found in many retention ponds throughout the county.
Horned Grebe Podiceps auritus
Horned Grebes can be found sporadically throughout the winter (November – early March), and I’d say the most reliable spot is Huguenot Memorial Park. They are sometimes in the “lagoon” there, and can be found from the family beach area with some effort. A check of the ocean along the north side of the jetties might produce a few individuals as well. If you’re birding in the Arlington area, try the fishing dock at Reddie Point Preserve where you’ll sometimes be able to find them rafting up in the St. Johns River.
It was encouraging that the arrival and departures of this species hadn’t changed much in the last 75 years; Grimes (1943) noted his early record of 3 November 1924 and latest date in the spring of 15 March 1925, very much in line with what were experiencing in 2014 when I first wrote this manuscript. As I revise this in 2020, the distribution and abundance for Horned Grebes has plummeted in recent years. Reports are very scattered and uncommon, and over the last five years you’re as likely to miss seeing one in winter as you are finding one, even when making a repeated and purposeful effort.
Historically, early seasonal observations include one off Mayport on 11 August 1974, which Edscorn (1975) noted as a record early date for Florida, and a specimen collected on 26 October 1974 noted as the earliest fall specimen by Stevenson and Anderson (1994).
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena
There was one unverified report of Red-necked Grebe from the Christmas Bird Count on 26 December 1983. This is obviously an exceptional report that is unfortunately not well documented.
On 1 January 2019, a Red-necked Grebe was recorded in the lagoon at Huguenot Memorial Park and remained at the location through 13 April 2019. It was most often and more easily viewed from the observation gazebo in the “free parking lot”, but could also be viewed from the family beach area a little more distantly. The bird was very active, often diving under the surface for prolonged periods of time and re-surfacing dozens of yards away, and did not seem at all perturbed by kayakers or people fishing in small boats nearby.
Red-necked Grebe is incredibly rare anywhere in Florida and the species should not be expected here in any season or year.
Eared Grebe Podiceps nigricollis
There are four known reports of Eared Grebe in Duval County. Bryan Obst’s observation on 27 November 1976 marked the county’s first report (Edscorn, 1977). The next report is from 3 December 1994 (no details), and on 8 December 2002 Clark noted one in north Jacksonville. The following year, Bob Richter reported one from Quarantine Island underneath the Dames Point bridge on 28 December 2003 (Anderson, 2004).
It’s difficult to make a recommendation based on just four observations, but early December may be the right time to look for these strays.
Western Grebe Aechmophorus occidentalis
There are two reports of Western Grebe for Duval County. The first was photographed by Sam Grimes on 30 March 1965 in the St. Johns River, and remained until 14 April, providing the first spring record for the state (Stevenson, 1965). The other report from 27 December 1970 was noted as “unverifiable” but included in The Birdlife of Florida; the bird was reported by the “Marvin party” on that year’s Christmas Bird Count with “all field marks” noted in the comments (Cruickshank, 1971).