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Barn Owl Tyto alba
Stevenson (1972) noted a particularly odd observation of a Barn Owl in mid-January 1972 that landed on a boat about 20 miles offshore of Mayport and was “shot at by the captain”. However, there is no indication of the bird’s final disposition.
For many years, Barn Owls were known to breed in Jacksonville’s Duval County, and Sam Grimes recorded them nesting in Mayport, Dinsmore, and even on Fort George Island. They first appeared on the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 27 December 1964, and occurred on the majority of those counts throughout the 1970’s. They disappeared for about a decade until the 1990 CBC and two more were reported on the 26 December 1992 count – and again the following year. The next report is from the 1999 CBC, and I believe that’s the last report in the County. Most of these CBC observations were from the pair nesting and roosting in the old lighthouse at Naval Air Station Mayport.
The species undoubtedly still occurs in Duval County, likely on the west side where there is plenty of suitable habitat. Unfortunately, no one in the local birding community is aware of any (yet). Having said that, I am very skeptical of any casually reported observations of this species in recent years, as they have always turned out to be Barred Owls.
Eastern Screech-Owl Megascops asio
Eastern Screech-Owls are year-round residents in Duval County and can usually be heard calling at dusk or before dawn on Fort George Island, Hanna Park, or Theodore Roosevelt. They certainly occur in other areas like Seaton Creek Historic Preserve and Durbin Creek Preserves, and are fairly reliable at the end of Cedar Point Road. Birders should use good judgment and limit the use of playback when trying to find this species.
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus
Great Horned Owls are our second most abundant owl species locally, are year-round residents, and are best heard or seen at dusk in suitable habitat. Areas like Cedar Point Preserve, Dutton Island, Fort George Island, and Theodore Roosevelt are ideal. If you hike to the observation platform at Theodore Roosevelt at dusk, you will stand a good chance of seeing one among the dead cabbage palms that border the marshes. In winter, they can often be found just before sunrise along Heckscher Drive between White Shell Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) sitting on the power poles.
Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus
There is one famous record of a Snowy Owl that was discovered on Little Talbot Island State Park on 27 December 2013 and remained until 19 January 2014. The bird was photographed and reported via eBird very late in the evening the night before the Duval County Christmas Bird Count. My CBC team was scattered all over our territory, which consists of Cedar Point Preserve, Pumpkin Hill, and Black Hammock Island, when I saw an email about the flagged eBird sighting. Using today’s technology (Android phone) I logged into the eBird Admin tool at 0600 – from the field – to review the report from deep in the woods at Betz-Tiger Point and decided it sounded very legitimate. Roger Clark was in town for the count and while waiting for the American Woodcock to show we quickly debated the merits of running over to Little Talbot Island at sunrise to look for the Snowy Owl. Very soon our entire count team was on the way, and as Roger and I rounded the gradual bend of A1A leading to south Little Talbot Island, we could actually see the owl sitting right on the beach. The bird remained for many days and was seen by visitors from all over the state and southeastern United States. It was the third state record, and just the second “chaseable” one.
That bird was featured in a front page New York Times article in which I was quoted; in some ways, being quoted in the same article as David Sibley is a “birding career” highlight for me. A pdf of that article is here: A Bird Flies South, and It’s News – The New York Times.
Burrowing Owl Athene cunicularia
For many years, there was a Burrowing Owl colony at Imeson Center across from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. The earliest report of the species included six individuals noted on 25 May 1975 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). It’s a bit unclear if this report was the same one Kale (1975) described, whereby Virge Markgraf submitted six as the first known breeding record in Northeast Florida.
Kale (1977) included a poignant message relayed by Bryan Obst, in which he aptly lamented the outcomes of having two threatened species nesting at the old Imeson airport site. Obst remarked that excitement around nesting Least Terns and Burrowing Owls quickly turned sour when the owls were proven to raid the tern colony for food – USFWS bands put on the terns were recovered from the owl burrows along with bones and feathers. Kale’s account included a little more detail suggesting the owl colony started with a single pair in 1973 or 1974, so not long before Virg’s aforementioned report in 1975.
By 1978, Ogden (1978) reported the group at 10 individuals, and the following year on 10 June 1979 Sam Grimes totaled 18 (six adults and 12 juveniles) in three burrows (Ogden, 1979). The next known update on the colony was included in Paul’s 1983 report, in which Grimes reported as many as 27 owls.
Through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were disturbing reports of locals running their dogs through the fields, encouraging the slaughter of the population. Rex Rowan recorded the last known observations there on 14 April 1995 and 31 July 1995, and he noted the absence of them on 19 September 1995 (Rowan, pers comm., 2016). So presumably through a combination of human disturbance and development of the area, the Burrowing Owls have been extirpated from the county since 1995.
Barred Owl Strix varia
Along with Eastern Screech-Owl and Great Horned Owl, the Barred Owl is our third common year-round resident owl species, and it is our most widespread and abundant. Barred Owls can be found all over Fort George Island, Cedar Point Preserve, Fort Caroline, and just about any other park or preserve with suitable habitat.
They are frequently seen in residential yards, often sitting on fences at dusk, and generate many questions and interest by casual observers. If your owl has “no ears”, huge eyes, looks more inquisitive than angry (angry=Great Horned Owl), you likely have a Barred. Their call sounds like “Who cooks for you“.
Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus
In addition to the earliest known report coming from the 1969 Christmas Bird Count, there are a few reports of Short-eared Owl from Huguenot Memorial Park dating back to 25 November 1973 and continuing into the 1980’s. On 11 January 1981, Joseph Wilson reported two individuals “near Jacksonville” (Stevenson, 1981).
CBC dates for the species include 1969, 70, 76, 77, 78, 79, 84, 85, 89, and 96. The 1979 report was of four individuals. I believe most of these observations were from birders walking the dunes in the evening; those areas are restricted now and thus there are no records over the last couple of decades from that location. Rowan (1995) noted two visiting birders from California reported one at Huguenot around 10 November 1995.
There is one recent record: on 3 November 2014, one was photographed sitting on an airfield at Mayport Naval Air Station, unfortunately again in an area of restricted access.
Northern Saw-whet Owl Aegolius acadicus
I don’t often stray from Duval County reports or records for purposes of this material, but when a significant record is located within close proximity to the county line it is certainly worth noting; such was the case with White-tailed Tropicbird, and such is the case with Northern Saw-whet Owl. On 31 October 1965, Lesser and Stickley (1967) documented what they believed to be the first Florida record for this species in Ponte Vedra (St. Johns), just south of the Duval County line (it is thus reasonable to assume the bird passed through Duval “airspace”).
They didn’t describe how they collected the specimen, which was previously in “good physical condition”, but they noted that the “skull had been shattered and the gonads destroyed in collecting” it (Lesser & Stickley, 1967). Apparently this was the southernmost record of the species during a massive invasion that winter along the eastern seaboard. A few years later, Peggy Powell reported a “distinctly” heard-only bird on the Duval County Christmas Bird Count on 30 December 1972 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).