Herons, Ibis, and Allies

American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus
American Bitterns were historically known to be “fairly common winter residents”, and there are a couple reports of them being flushed in May and June, indicating a slim possibility they could breed in the county (Grimes, 1943). They are very secretive and thus can be very difficult to find; it took me many years of birding in the county before seeing one. They are here throughout the winter season and can be found in the early spring months as well. Two of the more reliable locations are at Sheffield Regional Park and Spanish Pond.

American Bittern just off A1A, Little Talbot Island State Park. December 2016.

In winter months, your best bet will be to try shortly after dawn at Sheffield Regional Park. Park your vehicle at the lot near the little fishing dock by the large pond as you come in (there’s a couple picnic pavilions there). There are many cattails along the edge and you should approach slowly and quietly since they flush rather easily. The reason I suggest first thing in the morning is because as soon as the first fisherman arrives, your chances of seeing this bird is almost zero. At Spanish Pond, there is also a very short trail with a small observation area at the end of the wooden boardwalk leading from the parking lot. Scan from there and along the trail and you may have some luck. Hanna Park also has quite a bit of suitable habitat, although I don’t recall ever seeing one there. In 2015-16, one was seen fairly regularly along the edge of the large pond at Taye Brown Regional Park and another at the corner of Waterworks Street off New World Avenue.

On 24 December 2016, I was heading south on A1A through Little Talbot Island State Park doing 55 miles per hour when I noticed the Bittern pictured above. I turned around, pulled over to the shoulder, and watched the bird for half an hour. It was a bizarre experience watching this secretive species stalk prey on the side of the highway like a Cattle Egret.

Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis
Least Bitterns arrive sometime in early spring and breed in the county during the spring and summer seasons. Grimes (1943, p. 12) noted a breeding pair in Jacksonville Beach as early in the season as 9 April (1933), and another as late as 12 (August 1932).

Hanna Park has at least one every year; it’s found along the dense reeds and vegetation near the paddle boat rental center on the large pond. Another pair used to be in the small pond behind Safe Harbor seafood in Mayport. In the spring of 2015, I found a pair at the small pond at Imeson Center where as many as five occurred by the end of the season. As of 2020, that location continues to be reliable for them each year.

Otherwise, you can have some success (with a little luck) if you just persistently canvass suitable habitat in spring and summer.

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias 
Great Blue Herons are an abundant breeding species and can be found year round in any part of the county. It would be surprising if you didn’t see one while you’re out birding. Huguenot Memorial Park has had a “white form” show up periodically; most recently one was recorded there the last week of June in 2014. Grimes (1943, p.64) described a Great White Heron rescued off what is now Heckscher Drive in August 1932 and subsequently lived out its days at the Jacksonville Zoo. Other records of “Great Whites” include 12 June 1970, 11-25 November 1978 (Edscorn, 1979), 12 May 1985 (Kale, 1985), and 21 June-3 July 1985 (Paul, 1985).

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret Ardea alba
Like the Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets are extremely common in Duval County and you almost cannot avoid seeing them anywhere you go. They are indeed a breeding species, noted as far back as 1931, where Sam Grimes located a colony containing upwards of 125 nests in the northeastern part of the county (Howell, 1932, p. 100). Today they breed at places like the Jacksonville Zoo, Sample Swamp, and Black Hammock Island.

Snowy Egret Egretta thula
Snowy Egrets are also abundant in all seasons and are hard to miss. They are guaranteed at places like Huguenot Memorial Park and M&M Dairy year round. Much like the Great Egret, this species was a known breeder on Black Hammock Island as early as 1931 (Howell, 1932, p. 102).

Little Blue Heron Egretta caerulea
Little Blue Herons are relatively common and can be found throughout the county. I see them virtually every day along the marshes and roadside ponds up and down Heckscher Drive. They are also regular at M&M Dairy, Blue Cypress Park, and Reddie Point Preserve. In May and June, immature birds are most common and you’ll often see the mottled white and blue/dark patterns flying overhead with small groups of waders.

Tricolored Heron Egretta tricolor
Tricolored Herons are fairly common and should be found in suitable habitat any time of year. They can often be seen flying back and forth over the river or marshes; the dock at Reddie Point Preserve is a good vantage point, as is the fishing dock at Sisters Creek Marina. Spoonbill Pond on Big Talbot Island is almost always sure to yield at least one.

Reddish Egret Egretta rufescens 
The earliest documented record of Reddish Egret comes from 28 October 1875, when a specimen was collected at what is now Huguenot Memorial Park and sent to the Cincinnati Society of Natural History for their collection (Grimes, 1943). Another ancient specimen came from 27 June 1884.

Today, Reddish Egrets can almost be considered a year round resident, although they are very uncommon in the winter. Wintering birds are most often reported from Huguenot Memorial Park or the south end of Little Talbot Island. In spring and summer, there can be as many as eight individuals throughout Huguenot, but oddly enough the species is not a known breeder in Duval County. Records of white morphs are almost annual.

Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
It is difficult today to imagine that this species is still a relatively recently established one, although the earliest arrival date in Duval County is unknown. However, in 1966 Grimes noted a count of 386 Cattle Egrets and indicated they were the most abundant heron in the area for the previous three to four years (Cunningham, 1966). They first appeared on the Christmas Bird Count in 1958, then again in 1964; they did not become regular on the annual count until 1972.

Cattle Egret are a widespread breeding species in the county, and can be abundant in fields, pastures, and medians along most of our highways. M&M Dairy or the Lem Turner spray fields are your best bets if you absolutely need to see one.

Green Heron Butorides virescens
Green Herons are year-round residents but can be difficult to find in the winter months. There is usually one or two hanging around the three ponds at Reddie Point Preserve or along the paved loop trail at Blue Cypress Park. In summer they can often be found around the entrance to Huguenot Memorial Park or further up the road at Spoonbill Pond.

Black-crowned Night-Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Duval County is one of the oldest known extant breeding areas for Black-crowned Night-Herons in the state, with records going back a hundred years. Today they are rather easily located year round with the right plan. The “best” spot is the large pond at the entrance to Reddie Point Preserve; they are almost always roosting in the trees on the far side of that pond. There is a decent sized nesting colony at the Jacksonville Zoo, and there is another nesting spot adjacent to Blue Cypress Park and the Arlington Lions Club public boat ramp.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea
Yellow-crowned Night Herons are much less common and can be missed more often than found. They are particularly difficult to find in the winter, and it’s usually March or April before you see them moving around more. Good places to check are around the river parking lot at Blue Cypress Park, behind the Ribault Club on Fort George Island, and along Heritage River Road leading up to Carlucci Boat Ramp (off Heckscher Drive). They are known to nest in small colonies here “in the larger inland swamps” and salt marshes (Grimes, 1943).

White Ibis Eudocimus albus
Perhaps the earliest known breeding report of White Ibis is from 19 April 1931 when Grimes documented a colony of them (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). They were noted as abundant in 1943 when he recorded as many as 1,000 occupied nests in the Durbin Creek colony (Grimes, 1943).

Today they can still be found throughout the area at any time of year. If you are really looking for them you can’t go wrong at M&M Dairy, Blue Cypress Park, Hanna Park, or the Lem Turner spray fields.

Scarlet Ibis Eudocimus ruber
Anderson (2004) cited a “pink ibis” reported on 1 February 2004 by Charlene Green and others, suggesting an apparent White x Scarlet Ibis hybrid.

White-faced Ibis Plegadis chihi
This species should not be expected in the area, but in the spring of 2010 we learned a valuable lesson to never discount the possibility. That spring, a juvenile showed up with several Glossy Ibis at M&M Dairy in March and really exhibited no obvious signs of its true identity. As it stuck around for weeks, it started to show the relevant field marks and was eventually fairly well-documented as a White-faced Ibis. In the spring of 2014, I located another individual there among the Glossy Ibis that I believe to have been a White-faced, but unfortunately it didn’t linger long enough to confirm.

Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus
The earliest record of the species comes from an unknown date in 1877 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994); more definitive dates are later noted as 23 May 1964 and on 15 November 1967, Grimes noted four off Sawpit Road as a “notable northerly record” (Robertson and Ogden, 1968). Glossy Ibis is a species that is becoming more frequent but still rather localized in Duval County. They have pretty much always been recorded annually the last twenty-five years or so, but seem to becoming more reliable in certain locales. They are hit-or-miss a couple times per year along the St. Johns River and Huguenot Memorial Park, most often in August and in the morning.

They are more reliable at the old Mecklenburg Dairy Farm (restricted access) on the westside and at M&M Dairy in northern Jacksonville. They can also be found occasionally at Heritage River Road Wetlands, the Lem Turner Road spray fields, and have been recorded at Blue Cypress Park in Arlington.

Since 2010, M&M Dairy has been the spot from spring through early summer. In April and May, you may find anywhere from 5 to 30 individuals. They are almost exclusively restricted to the corner of the field by New Berlin road and Port Jacksonville Parkway. Park in the lot and walk back to the corner and you can easily scope from the sidewalk.

Roseate Spoonbill Platalea ajaja
Roseate Spoonbills are interesting in that they are seemingly expanding their range significantly. They were once very uncommon and generated a lot of excitement in Duval County; now they are abundant in summer and occasional in winter. An early notable observation comes from 8-15 May 1966 where Grady Holbert reported a single bird at Mayport (Cunningham, 1966). The species did not occur on the annual Christmas Bird Count until 1998, but in recent years they are almost expected on the annual count.

Winter records are most often from the area around Helen Floyd Cooper Park, Cedar Point Preserve, Heritage River Road, and the marshes adjacent to Big Talbot Island State Park. In summer, they can be found all along the St. Johns River, especially in areas of tidal marsh. It is easy and makes for a pleasant time to park off Heckscher Drive at White Shell Bay during low tide to watch them forage (often in the company of Black-necked Stilts and American White Pelican). Despite their heavy abundance in spring and summer, there have been no observed breeding behaviors in the county, nor any nests yet located.

American Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
Stevenson and Anderson (1994) note an unverified sight report of one flamingo at Mayport on 23 May 1964. The species is not expected to occur at any time in the region.

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