Rails, Gallinules, and Allies

Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis
There are only three reports for Yellow Rail in Jacksonville. Grimes (1944, p. 60) noted flushing an individual in the Eastport area in 1930. On 14 September 1932 Grimes observed one for several minutes along a pond in Jacksonville Beach. The last and most recent report is from Mayport on 2 September 1979 (Atherton & Atherton, 1980). The species is incredibly rare in Florida, and based on eBird data there is only one observation documented with photo or audio in the entire state. Needless to say, one should not be expected in Duval.

Black Rail Laterallus jamaicensis
There are very few reports of this secretive species in the county, none of which have ever been recorded with audio, video, or photographic evidence. The earliest report comes from the Christmas Bird Count on 29 December 1963 (Cruickshank, 1964). The 1973 CBC produced another report, and there are two reports from Fort George Island on the 26 December 2009 CBC. The only other report is from the marshes at the Little Talbot Island State Park campground – also in 2009 (March).

Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans
Clapper Rail is the most common and expected rail species in Duval County. They can often be heard in any of the coastal marshes; look for them from the small piers at Betz-Tiger Point, Sisters Creek Marina, and in the marshes behind Alimacani Boat Ramp off A1A. They can also be seen from the observation tower at Theodore Roosevelt area and behind Kingsley Plantation along the sand bars in the Fort George River. Low tide is best for seeing them, and they can be located in any season.

King Rail Rallus elegans
King Rail historically bred in Duval County in the Eastport area, and Sam Grimes documented them very well in the 1930’s – even photographed them on the nest. Grimes (1944) lamented the decline in numbers due to loss of habitat, and that is certainly true some 75 years later in 2020. He noted one nest at the mouth of the Trout River among the shallow marshes; in 2014, I heard a King Rail calling in the same general location. They were a popular species on the annual Christmas Bird Counts for decades, including appearances on the count in 1949, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1959-63, and on the majority of counts from 1970-1982; they have not been reported on a CBC since ’82.

King Rails are now a very difficult species to find and identify in the county, and thus there are very few modern reports. Clark found one along the 301 corridor many years ago in the swampy bottomlands, where there is currently still suitable habitat but is rapidly diminishing. As mentioned, in 2014 I discovered an accessible area off Heckscher Drive where I heard one calling for over 30 minutes in late spring. Due to the sensitivity of the habitat and the species’ tenuous hold in the county, I am reluctant to provide details on the location for fear of constant playback and harassment. In winter and early spring 2015, Marie and I recorded video of one under the boardwalk at Ringhaver Park; a bird previously reported by Carly Wainwright.

Virginia Rail Rallus limicola
Virginia Rail is a winter resident in Duval County but is very rarely reported. I believe they’re fairly common but not much sought after, so there are very few records. Good places to check for them are the marshes around Betz-Tiger Point, Pumpkin Hill, Black Hammock Island, and even Theodore Roosevelt area.

Grimes noted a few specimens collected in the 1920’s, including one killed by a cat in the marshes around the Trout River. The earliest specifically dated observation I have been able to find is 28 November 1930 (Grimes, 1944). In recent years, I’ve observed them around the kayak launch area of Pumpkin Hill Preserve State Park, and on 14 January 2018 along the power line cut at Westside Industrial Park, where they were fairly reliable that winter. On 3 March 2018, I located another calling Virginia in a freshwater marsh on Fanning Island in north Jacksonville.

Sora Porzana carolina
Sora is a winter species in Duval County and is reported a few times per year. Grimes (1944) noted their arrival and departure to be around 5 August to 8 May, which very much still roughly holds true today. A very old and notable winter record is of a specimen collected on 3 January 1878 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Today they are not abundant and are very difficult to find. I would not say there is a particularly reliable location for them, so just try in suitable habitat. Any of the small fresh water ponds with abundant cattails and vegetation are as good a place as any to seek them. In recent years, such habitat has been quite productive along New World Avenue near Waterworks Street, but the area has been under rapid development the last five years (2015-2020). Other good places to try for one include Spanish Pond and Turner Pond at Imeson Center.

Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Like King Rail, Grimes documented breeding Purple Gallinules in the Eastport area throughout the 1930’s, and like the King Rail he also lamented the loss of their breeding habitat due to their breeding ponds being drained or filled in (Grimes, 1944). He also noted they were almost strictly limited to the eastern part of the county and did not occur west of the river. By 1940, he was only able to find one nest in a pond that a decade earlier had close to a dozen pairs in a “colony”.

Purple Gallinules were still relatively easy to find in the 1980’s, but since then there are very few reports of this species in the county. In the early ’80’s they could still be found around Lake Narcissus, which is now surrounded completely by homes in the Hidden Hills subdivision. Obviously, they’ve been extirpated from that area.

I long believed there was a remaining possibility that they still occur here, and if so most likely at Turner Pond in the Imeson area. Indeed, in 2011 one was reported in a pond at the nearby Jacksonville Zoo for a single summer day, suggesting they may still exist at Turner Pond less than half a mile away. On 4 October 2015, JC Knoll recorded a single Purple Gallinule at the main pond of Westside Industrial Park, where I was able to view it briefly later that afternoon. It was again recorded on the 5th by David Foster, but despite significant efforts by many birders over the next week it was not relocated.

Unfortunately, Turner Pond is restricted access and completely overgrown so there is no way to scope any of the water or edges there. In addition to being vigilant at Westside Industrial Park, other locations still worth checking would be any ponds around the 9B corridor to Bayard or places like Seaton Creek Preserve or the Ethel and Lannie Road areas.

On 29 May 2017 I startled one in Eastport Wastelands in the precise hardwood swamp I began searching for them based on Grimes’ documentation. I was able to photograph it and watch it for several minutes before it disappeared. Despite many follow-up visits throughout the summer I was unable to ever relocate one there.

Purple Gallinule. Eastport Wastelands.

On 17 June 2018, thirteen individuals were recorded at a pond on the Budweiser property off Lem Turner Road, including five chicks. This observation certified that the species does still breed in the county, but in very limited numbers.

Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata 
Common Gallinules can be found year-round in Duval County, but are not abundant or common. Reliable locations are Hanna Park, M&M Dairy, the ponds at Imeson Center, Blue Cypress Park, the Jacksonville Equestrian Center, and Westside Industrial Park. If you’re visiting the Jacksonville Zoo they also breed there in the pond beneath the Wood Stork colony. The central pond at Hanna Park is your absolute best bet for seeing the species here.

American Coot Fulica americana
American Coot is an abundant winter resident and can be found throughout the county. Check retention ponds and along the St. Johns River for them. An enormous collection of Coots can be found at the pond under the interchange of I-95 and I-295 at the southern part of the county. Coots are scarce breeders in summer months, when they were first recorded as a breeding species 16-17 August 1979 (Ogden, 1979). As recently as summer 2015 I was able to confirm a breeding pair with young in a pond along the intersection of I-295 (beltway) and JTB Boulevard.

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