Vultures, Hawks, and Allies

Black Vulture Coragyps atratus
Black Vultures are a year-round, resident breeding species throughout the county and they are fairly uniformly distributed. They are not the predominant vulture species along the coast and you’re more likely to see Turkey Vultures at places like Huguenot Memorial Park or Hanna Park, but you can scope them over Big Talbot Island or Fort George Island from those coastal locations. If you’re birding along Cedar Point Road at places like Cedar Point Preserve, Sheffield Regional Park, Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, or anywhere on Black Hammock Island, they’re more abundant and probably represent 40-50% of the vultures you’ll see there. There is a sizable roost of the species around the athletic fields at University of North Florida, which can be an impressive sight early in the mornings there.

Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura
Turkey Vulture is the predominant vulture in Duval County and can be seen virtually any time you’re out birding. This species is abundant and widespread in any season and almost any time of day. Turkey Vultures have also been documented as a breeding species in the county but their nests are extremely difficult to locate. Indeed, Stevenson and Anderson (1994) noted that the only “published” report of a nest in Florida since 1932 came from Grimes’ account in Duval County.

Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Osprey is a common species throughout the county and an abundant breeding species. Due to overlap in breeding and migration ranges, it is difficult to ascertain migrants from resident birds but they do become significantly more abundant in October during fall migration. During that time, it is common to see 15-25 individuals at coastal locations like Huguenot Memorial Park. They often build nests on cell towers, power line structures, channel markers in the river and intracoastal, and on raised platforms erected for that purpose.

Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus
In 1982, Paul noted Swallow-tailed Kites were still considered rare here; a sentiment that was reiterated in Langridge’s spring report in 1986. Flash forward many decades and in recent years they are uncommon but regularly seen, arriving in early March and remaining through the end of August. There have been many confirmed reports of nesting within the county since 2015. Sightings increase in June and peak throughout July; the Lem Turner spray fields and M&M Dairy are probably the most reliable places to see them. The Lem Turner spot can host up to 50-120 individuals in July, creating quite the spectacle as they forage over the fields. There is at least one winter report of the species from 17 January 1993 (West & Wamer, 1993).

White-tailed Kite Elanus leucurus
Kale (1978) noted an account provided by Barry Vorse, who observed a “rare adult White-tailed Kite” flying “several feet” above the grassy median of Interstate 10 about two miles east of Baldwin on 4 March 1978. There are no other reported observations of the species and it is certainly not one to be expected in any season.

Snail Kite Rostrhamus sociabilis
Grimes (1943) alluded to the presence of Snail Kite along the coastal edges of the county in the late 1880’s and into the early 1900’s, and lamented the loss of their habitat due to development prior to World War II. He further included a quote from George A. Boardman, “The Everglade Kite has been making us a visit near Jacksonville this winter” (Grimes, 1944). That quote was dated 10 April 1884.

By 2014, I was able to find three reports of the species, the first indicating three specimens that were collected sometime in the winter of 1883-1884 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). From 26 April – 1 May 1985, Peggy Powell reported a “brown-plumaged bird” as the first county record since 1884 (Kale, 1985). A single bird was reported on the 1986 Christmas Bird Count but no details are available.

On 7 February 2020, Patrick Leary astutely observed one at Fort George Inlet that was met with some skepticism by other local birders – until many days later when a deceased one was recovered by staff at Huguenot Memorial Park. I’ve known Pat for many years, and have always found him to be an incredible birder who has contributed many significant reports to the Duval (and Nassau) County record books. His notes from this observation include: “juvenile or adult female flying low N-S across Ft. George Inlet. Seen well for entire flight across inlet and passing into dunes at north end of the park . Kite was crossing inlet against very brisk west winds No camera, thus no photos and very windy conditions (>25mph) problematic for photography The bird was “generally” the size and shape of a RTHA, but very dark with a deep and steady wing beats (>25mph crosswinds) As it came closer, we could see a bright, sharply defined, rump band and much contrast in the underwings. Approaching closer, it’s form became more evident with very broad and “blunt” wings and short tail with narrow white band. The underwings showed contrast between the dark primaries and inner coverts. We were puzzled to identify the unusually marked bird, until we considered SNKI. No other regional raptor matched the field marks, especially the high contrast rump band and white-tipped tail. Comparing the size, appearance and flight of this bird to other raptors, I am confident of its identification.”

It’s worth noting that in recent years Snail Kites have been breeding as far north as Alachua County and are regularly seen in St. Johns County to the south. It is perhaps a matter of time before the species becomes a more frequent visitor to the Jacksonville area.

Mississippi Kite Ictinia mississippiensis
Mississippi Kite is another species that was once considerably rare in the county, and the first observation I’ve come across is from 13 August 1977 by Bryan Obst (Edscorn, 1978). Other early notable sightings include 30 July 1980 by Julie Cocke (Edscorn, 1980) and 24 June 1981. An immature was noted in south Jacksonville on 29 September 1989 (West, 1990).

Today they are uncommon but annual and generally arrive in mid to late April; they are virtually gone by the first week of September. In 2004, Powell noted a pair incubating on the nest in Jacksonville’s south side, but confirmation of fledged young never occurred. Beginning around 2015, they have been documented as confirmed breeders through the county, and in 2020 I confirmed breeding on Little Marsh Island in north Jacksonville.

This species is much less abundant than the Swallow-tailed Kite, and is most reliable at M&M Dairy and the Lem Turner spray fields. They can also occasionally be seen soaring over Sheffield Regional Park in spring. I wouldn’t say they’re reliable anywhere else in the county, so if this species is on your target list head to one of those locations.

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Bald Eagle is a breeding species that is more abundant in the winter months, but can occasionally be found in the summer. They are most often seen along the St. Johns River and coastal areas, so places like Reddie Point Preserve, the Jacksonville Zoo area, Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, or Talbot Islands are good places to see them. The observation platform at Theodore Roosevelt area is excellent in fall and winter, as is Huguenot Memorial Park and Nassau Sound (along the northern edge of Little Talbot Island State Park or the southern edge of Big Talbot).

Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Northern Harriers arrive in mid-September and remain through about the first week of May. Stevenson and Anderson (1994) note a summer record from 13 July 1981, but they are not to be expected in summer. They seem to be most abundant in the core winter months (December-January), where they can be found with a little bit of effort by scanning any of the marsh locations or coastal dunes. Little Talbot Island State Park, behind Kingsley Plantation, from the Cedar Point State Park boat ramp, or Sister’s Creek Marina are all excellent locations to search for this species. Adult males (“Gray Ghosts”) are very scarce, however, and are best sought on the south end of Little Talbot Island.

Sharp-shinned Hawk Accipiter striatus
Sharp-shinned Hawk is a relatively common species from mid-September through the end of April, but there are no “reliable” locations to seek them out. The best suggestion is simply to be alert for accipiters while you’re out birding areas like Fort George Island, Little Talbot Island State Park, M&M Dairy, Hanna Park, or anywhere along the Cedar Point Road corridor. It is worth keeping in mind that there are no accepted, documented summer records for this species in Florida, so if you encounter an accipiter during those months it is almost certainly a Cooper’s Hawk.

Cooper’s Hawk Accipiter cooperii
Much like Sharp-shinned Hawk, there are no “go to” locations for this species in Duval County, although they occur year round and breed in the Jacksonville area. Theodore Roosevelt Preserve, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve, Hanna Park, Fort George Island, M&M Dairy, and the Mecklenburg Dairy Farm area are as good a location as any to observe this species (and they are known to breed in several of those locations).

Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis
There are three reports of Northern Goshawk, the first coming from 4 November 1973, where Virge Markgraf’s observation of an immature was “satisfactory” enough to warrant inclusion in American Birds. Stevenson noted that this and another observation just to the south of our county were the first such reports in Florida in 45 years (Stevenson, 1973, p. 46). In 1979, two more birds were reported; one on 2 December by Markgraf (Stevenson, 1980) and another by Bryan Obst east of Baldwin on 7 December (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).

Red-shouldered Hawk Buteo lineatus
Perhaps second only to Osprey in terms of abundance, the Red-shouldered Hawk is the predominant raptor in Duval County. They are very consistently found throughout the year and throughout the county; you will most likely see at least one after just a few hours of birding in an afternoon. Further, it is the most likely hawk / raptor found in residential areas, in back yards, and along garden fences. It is without a doubt, the number one species photographed and sent to me by “non-birdwatching” friends, neighbors, and coworkers…which is a great thing, as they at pique an interest in nature and birds.

Broad-winged Hawk Buteo platypterus
Broad-winged Hawk is a very rare, yet annual, migrant through Duval County each spring. Most reports have come from the coastal areas of the Timucuan Preserve along the Fort George River and Talbot Island State Parks (R. Clark, personal communication, 2012). It is not a species to be expected – even when targeting them – but the observations mostly occur during the first two weeks of April. In 2009, R. Clark noted his sixth of the season on 19 April; this marks the most documented sightings in any year in the county. The first documented observation was reported by Grimes (1944), but the details and date was unfortunately vague; all we know is the year was 1931. Other notable reports are from the Christmas Bird Counts in 1953, 1954, ’66, ’70, ’72, and 2002. Patrick Leary observed one 4 April 2004 (Pranty, 2004). Interestingly, there is only one known photograph of the species in county history, of a bird seen at Dayson Basin on 14 July 2015.

Short-tailed Hawk Buteo brachyurus
There have been a handful of reports for Short-tailed Hawk in Duval County, and just two documented records. Most observations have been submitted by one observer and occurred in November 2005, February 2011, and May 2013. On 15 March 2015, Bob Richter provided the first known photographic record of the species from Westside Industrial Park. On 1 October 2015, Kavan Eldredge photographed just the second known county record in Mandarin. Since 2015, there have been a small handful of additional observations in the county, a couple of which were accompanied by pictures. Due to the proximity of continued sightings in adjacent counties, I’d suggest keeping an eye out for this species at places like Durbin Creek Preserve or Mecklenburg Dairy Farm – in addition to keeping your eyes to the sky at Westside Industrial.

Swainson’s Hawk Buteo swainsoni
There are three reports of Swainson’s Hawk in the county; the first coming from the 30 December 1972 Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The second observation was reported on 22 December 1974 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). The most recent report is from 30 December 1984 on that year’s CBC.

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
Red-tailed Hawk is another species that occurs year-round with a fairly consistent abundance. It is difficult to “target” this species, but in winter they can commonly be found sitting on telephone poles along Heckscher Drive on the way to Huguenot Memorial Park. Based on my experience, the most reliable place to find one is at Imeson Center (see the Locations section) where they can often be seen perched along the power lines running along the rail road tracks. Otherwise, look for them soaring mid-day while birding at locations like Reddie Point Preserve, Sheffield Regional Park, Hanna Park, M&M Dairy, or Fort George Island.

Rough-legged Hawk Buteo lagopus
There is one unverifiable report of Rough-legged Hawk, a bird observed “directly overhead” on the 1969 Christmas Bird Count (Cruickshank, 1970).

Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos
I’m aware of three reports of Golden Eagle in Duval County, the first of which occurred 19 March 1970, submitted by Donald J. Peterson (Stevenson, 1970). Another was reported on the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 30 January 1978, and again on a CBC around 2008 or 2009, a bird observed at the Dames Point bridge. Unfortunately no photographs were obtained. This is not a species you should expect to see in the county.

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