Summary of the Winter Season – 2013-2014

Summary of the Winter Season
1 Dec 2013– 28 Feb 2014
Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam & St. Johns Counties

Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.” A county designation (in italics) accompanies the first-time listing of each site in this report.

The winter season started with mild weather but turned into one with periods of prolonged cold and many fronts, perhaps a result of the “polar vortex” phenomenon across North America. The season provided many memorable and historic moments for northeast Florida birding, including the most significant record in many years – a Snowy Owl. For a period of about a week, birders were able to make one visit to our extreme northern Atlantic coast of Florida and see a male Harlequin Duck, a Snowy Owl, and three Snow Buntings, all within an hour’s drive of one another. This “trifecta” of rare species drew birders from all over the southeastern United States and served to showcase many of our local premium birding locations to the out-of-town visitors.

While it didn’t create quite the same buzz, another exciting “trifecta” occurred later in the season in St. Johns county when all three species of Scoter (including numerous adult males) could very easily be seen along Salt Run. About the same time, another significant rarity – a Black-headed Gull (which is still a review species for Florida) – was recorded in Putnam County and lingered for about two weeks. Not to be overlooked, a Cassin’s Kingbird (also still a review species) was reliable throughout the season in Flagler county, and is likely the same bird that wintered in that location in 2012-2013.

The region’s only report of Black-bellied Whistling-Duck came from the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR) (St. Johns) 2 December.

A Snow Goose was reported 18 December at Purdue Road pond (Duval), presumably the same individual blue/dark morph that was recorded on Thanksgiving day. Five Snow Goose were reported from the Riverview Club (St. Johns) on 16 February.

Northern Pintail were scarce in the region and localized to three locations: Grand Reserve golf course (Flagler) on 6 January, Purdue Road pond from 8 December through 1 February, and in Amelia Island (Nassau) on 15 February. Green-winged Teal were equally hard to find, with reports coming from GTMNERR throughout January, Purdue Road, and the Jacksonville Zoo. The high count of just 23 individuals came from the Duval County Christmas Bird Count’s boat team.

Rare in any winter season, the region’s only Canvasback was a lone female at Purdue Road from 11-23 February. Redhead were much more common with consistent reports coming from numerous locations in all counties except Baker and Putnam.

One of the season’s highlights was a male Harlequin Duck recorded off the pier at Ft. Clinch SP (Nassau). It often required persistence and patience to observe, but once it made an appearance it provided spectacular close-up views around the pier pilings and even on the jetty rocks.

Scoters continued in high numbers this winter, with all three species seen regularly along the coast. Most Black Scoter observations were concentrated in St. Augustine (St. Johns) around the inlet and in Salt Run, which runs along the western side of Anastasia SP (St. Johns) . Beginning on 9 February, all three scoters could be easily observed in Salt Run from Island Drive, with as many as 20 White-winged and 25 Surf Scoters in the group, about half of which were adult males. Huguenot Memorial Park (Duval) and Ft. Clinch SP were the most reliable locations to observe White-winged Scoters north of St. Augustine, but there were a few reports several miles inland along the St. Johns River from Reddie Point Preserve (Duval).

Single Long-tailed Duck observations were reported from Ft. Clinch on 29 December and again on 9 February. One was also present in Salt Run with the Scoters in February, but was much more difficult to observe due to its constant diving and smaller size.

Northern Bobwhite were reported from Gold Head Branch SP (Clay) on 1 February, Pumpkin Hill SP (Duval) on 28 December, and Bartram farms (St. Johns) on 4 February. A single Bobwhite was also recorded at the Welaka National Fish Hatchery (Putnam) on 16 February.

It was a slow season for Red-throated Loon, but they were reported from Nassau (15 February), Duval, and St. Johns counties. The northernmost boardwalk at Little Talbot Island SP (Duval) is historically one of the best locations to observe this species, and it produced one on 19 January. Two were observed in St. Augustine in the inlet and Salt Run area on 14-15 February.

American Bittern are normally reported in very low numbers in NE FL, but we enjoyed many reports this winter. The high count for the region was 5 from Wall Lake (Putnam) on 18 February, with the remainder of the observations centered around Jacksonville. Three historically reliable locations in Duval county produced a single American Bittern at Sheffield Regional Park, Spanish Pond, and Hanna Park. One was also reported from Blue Cypress Park on 1 January, in the small pond along the paved loop walking trail.

Reddish Egret are uncommon in winter, but consistent reports came from around the Vilano area (St. Johns) and Huguenot Memorial Park throughout the season. Most of these reports were of single birds, but two were recorded fairly consistently around the north end of Huguenot and the south end of adjacent Little Talbot Island SP.

Glossy Ibis were reported at Fort Clinch SP (12 January), Palm Harbor (Flagler) on 28 December, and then along St. Johns county from the GTMNERR to Watson’s Pond. Most of these observations were of less than 4 individuals, and the high count was just 8. They are uncommon in Duval county in any season, and were unsurprisingly not reported there during this season.

Roseate Spoonbills are becoming more common in NE FL during winter, and are now reliable on both the St. Johns and Duval county Christmas Bird Counts. Scattered reports of 3 individuals or less came from Nassau and Duval counties during the season, while frequent and consistent reports came along the coast of St. Johns county. There were no reports from Flagler, and the closest inland winter report was from Blue Springs SP (Volusia). The distribution and winter abundance of this species will be interesting to watch over the next several years, and may be reflective of the known expansion of their northern breeding range into St. Augustine in recent years.

King Rail were reported in the GTMNERR from 2-20 February, and at the foot of the Vilano Bridge (St. Johns) as early as 6 December. The only other report also came from St. Johns county at Deep Creek on 20 February. Virginia Rail were also reported from these locations, as well as Moultrie Creek on 15 February. The only other report for Virginia Rail came from Katharine Ordway Preserve (Putnam) on 19 December; that date and location also furnished the region’s only report of Purple Gallinule.

The only Limpkin report came from the Westside Industrial Park (Duval) on 22 December. This has become a reliable location in recent years for this species, and even produced the county’s first breeding record this past year.

Sandhill Cranes are abundant in most of the region, and are really only notable when they occur in Nassau or Duval counties. Two were reported from New World Avenue (Duval) throughout the season, and single reports came from two locations in Nassau county. The Duval county spot has become consistent over the last few years and is now a confirmed breeding location over the last year.

American Avocets are always a treat in NE FL and 3 were reported from GTMNERR’s Six Mile Landing on 15 February. Six were recorded on the Duval CBC (28 December) from the fishing dock at Betz Tiger Point Preserve (Duval) around low tide, and 3 more were reported by the river team that day. Another good location in winter is along Heckscher Drive in Jacksonville, just west of the old White Shell Bay fish camp at Heritage River Road. You can scan the river at low tide from the south side of the road to check for them, a technique that paid off with 5 individuals recorded on 25 January.

Piping Plovers are found in winter with some effort, and are usually localized to Little Talbot Island SP, Huguenot Memorial Park, Anastasia SP, and Porpoise Point (St. Johns). They were recorded throughout the season at these locations in groups of 1-3, and the high count for the region was just 4 individuals at Little Talbot on 5 January. Two were also reported from Ft. Clinch SP on 29 December.

Solitary Sandpiper is rare in winter, but a single bird was recorded at Welaka National Fish Hatchery from the observation tower on 8-13 February.

The region’s only Whimbrel records came from the Palmetto Road docks area, where up to 13 individuals roosted from 15 January – 14 February. This area also produced 1-2 Marbled Godwit, which were also reported from Huguenot Memorial Park on 15 February and from the George Crady Fishing Pier (Nassau) on 22 February.

Very small numbers of Red Knot occurred along the St. Johns and Nassau county beaches, but a larger flock of up to 150 birds frequented Little Talbot Island SP and Huguenot Memorial Park throughout the latter part of January and continuing through the end of the season.

Purple Sandpipers were recorded at Ft. Clinch SP and at Huguenot Memorial Park , both beginning 8 December with 3 individuals at both locations. The jetties at both of these locations are historically very reliable for the species, and they could be found here throughout the season. The pier at Ft. Clinch SP runs parallel to the jetties for quite a distance, which makes finding Purple Sandpipers there much easier than Huguenot, where observations tend to coincide with high tides; it is also best to find them early in the morning while they are roosting on the sandbar south of the jetties, adjacent to the St. Johns River.

American Woodcock was reported from GTMNERR on 18 February; 2 were reported earlier in the season from Betz Tiger Point Preserve on 28 December and again on 1 January. They are most reliable at dawn and dusk, and usually only provide very fleeting looks as they fly across open spaces.

Single reports of Pomarine Jaeger observed from shore were scattered throughout the season from Ft. Clinch SP, Huguenot Memorial Park, and overlooks in St. Johns county. Parasitic Jaegers are usually more frequently reported from land, and this season was no exception with reports coming from all coastal counties in the area.

On 13 December, a Razorbill was recorded at Flagler Beach (Flagler) and taken to the Marine Science Center in Volusia county for rehabilitation. This record led to speculation as to whether Florida would experience an invasion similar to the previous winter, but this bird proved to be the only record this winter.

It was a good winter for rare gulls, the “rarest” of which – a Black-headed Gull – was first recorded on 7 February at Welaka National Fish Hatchery and remained for 10 days. Anyone who observed this bird is encouraged to submit a rare bird form to the Florida Ornithological Society (FOS), as this species is still considered a review species for the state of Florida (which typically means there are less than 15 previously accepted state records).

Other uncommon gulls included records of first cycle Iceland Gulls at Huguenot Memorial Park on 2 January and at Ft. Clinch SP on 15 February, and records of single Glaucous Gulls at Huguenot on 15 December, at Ft. Clinch SP on 1 January, and at Little Talbot Island SP on 11 February. The latter report was not from the south side of Talbot adjacent to Huguenot, but rather from the extreme north end of the park, which is in close proximity to Nassau Sound and Bird Island.

A very early Gull-billed Tern was recorded in Alligator Creek (Nassau) on 2 February, and 2 were reported at Salt Run on 12 February.

White-winged Doves are typically very localized in northeast Florida, and that trend continues. Aside from single reports in Clay and Flagler counties (presumably incidentals), the populations of doves remain fairly restricted to an area of Atlantic Beach (Duval) and near the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine (St. Johns).

The highlight of the season was undoubtedly a Snowy Owl discovered at Little Talbot Island SP on 27 December, providing either only the third or fourth state record, and only the second legitimately “chaseable” one. The owl remained through 19 January, and was easily observed through much of that period, only moving further north and into the dunes for the last few days.

Nanday Parakeets continue to be very localized along the coast, ranging about 25 km from Porpoise Point (St. Johns) to just south of Marineland (Flagler).

Two Rufous Hummingbirds were recorded in Jacksonville; one on 11 January in San Mateo (Duval), and another from 13-18 February that was trapped and banded.

The Cassin’s Kingbird recorded in the fall season along Route 305 near Bunnell (Flagler) continued through the winter season, and is likely the same bird that wintered there in 2012-2013. As reliable as this bird has been, it is still considered a review species for the state and should be prioritized accordingly for any state “lister”.

Up to 5 Western Kingbirds frequented the Mayport area around Helen Floyd Cooper Park (Duval) from 13 December to 10 February, and another was reported under the north end of the Dames Point bridge on the Duval county CBC (28 December). Mayport Naval Air Station has historically hosted Western Kingbirds in winter, but due to restricted access they are not reported every year in the area. There was one report of six Western Kingbirds at Davis Shores (St. Johns) on 20 February.

Purple Martins arrived as early as 25 January in St. Johns county and 14 February in Duval. The other counties followed with initial arrivals of 15 and 16 February.

Rare in any winter, a Brown Creeper was reported from Amelia Island (Nassau) on 1 February.

A pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets reported on 17 February from Gold Head Branch SP (Clay) were the only observations this season.

American Pipits were recorded on 1 December at Sheffield Park (Duval) and a single bird at Huguenot Memorial Park later that afternoon. They became fairly regular and reliable through the region by mid-January, with reports throughout Duval and Nassau counties and in smaller numbers in Flagler, Putnam, and Clay. They were conspicuously absent from St. Johns county, which is likely just indicative of the western part of the county being under-birded.

Four Snow Buntings were first reported at Huguenot Memorial Park on 13 December, and quickly became a group of 3 that persisted through the end of the season. They were most consistently observed along the river side of the park between the jetties and the campground parking lot, which is the same area previous reports of this species have come from over the last couple of decades.

There were three reports of Ovenbird in Putnam county and one spent a month at a residence in Jacksonville Beach (Duval) from 27 January through 27 February. Two others were reported late in the season; one each at Reddie Point Preserve and on Ft. George Island (Duval).

There were few reports of wintering Northern Parula, including one record from the Fountain of Youth (St. Johns) on 30 December. The first migrant Northern Parulas started arriving throughout the region beginning 20 February. A Prairie Warbler was recorded at Cedar Point Preserve (Duval) on 28 December during the CBC, and a rare (for anytime of year in northeast Florida) Wilson’s Warbler was recorded in Fernandina (Nassau) on 8 February.

Field Sparrow reports were scattered, but the species was very reliable throughout the winter at both Reddie Point Preserve and the south end of Little Talbot Island SP. Vesper Sparrows were also observed with some effort, and were perhaps most easily located at Imeson Center (Duval) and the south picnic table area at Little Talbot.

Grasshopper Sparrows are uncommon and usually difficult to locate, which made a very cooperative one at the south parking lot at Little Talbot Island SP (29 December) a pleasure. It remained for at least two weeks and was either overlooked or just not reported by the hoards of birders coming to see the Snowy Owl.

Reports of Nelson’s Sparrow were low, but came from historically reliable locations such as Faver-Dykes SP (St. Johns), GTMNERR, and the marshes around Ft. George Island. Although Saltmarsh Sparrows are typically thought to be more abundant locally, there were actually less reports than Nelson’s and they came from the same locations. These can be very challenging species to separate, and there are some excellent comparison photographs in two of the eBird reports to consider; one report from 8 January and another from 3 February .

White-crowned Sparrows have been more difficult to find over the last few years, and this trend continued this season. There were two reports from St. Augustine and one from Putnam; in Jacksonville there were many reports but from the same location – the south end of Little Talbot Island SP.

The region’s only report of Dark-eyed Junco came from the Trout River area in Jacksonville (Duval) during the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) from 9-12 February.

There are typically a handful of winter reports of Summer Tanager, but this year there was just a single report from a residence in Jacksonville Beach (22-25 January). A Western Tanager was recorded in the maritime hammock of Cedar Point Preserve on 28 December during the CBC; there are only a handful of previous modern county records of this species.

Painted Buntings have often been regarded as rare in winter in northeast Florida, but this season there were too many to summarize other than to mention they were mostly coastal reports with the exception of Duval county, where many were on the west side of town. Much like the distribution and abundance of Roseate Spoonbill, it will be interesting to see if the trend for wintering Painted Buntings continues to increase in the future.

Rusty Blackbirds were reported once from the University of North Florida (Duval) on 17 January, which has been a reliable location in previous years. When present, they are typically found in the low swamp area on the back side of the trail circling Lake Oneida. The region’s only other reports for Rusty Blackbird came consistently from M&M Dairy (Duval); observations occurred from 28 December through the end of the season.

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