Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers

Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers provide some of the most challenging and enjoyable birding opportunities in Duval County, and we are extremely fortunate to have many favorable and highly desirable birding destinations to see them. Huguenot Memorial Park is without a doubt the best place to observe these species and to search for the more uncommon or rare species, and you will notice that as a theme throughout this section. However, there are a handful of other places to look for them including 16th Ave South (see Locations), or the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park and the Big Bird Island area.

“Storm birding” is always a great time to look for both rare and unusual numbers of these species from land. For instance, following Tropical Storm Jerry in late August 1995, 560 Black Terns and 680 Common Terns were observed at Huguenot (Rowan, 1995), and during Gabrielle on 15 September 2001, R. Clark reported 35 Caspian, 325 Royal, 72 Sandwich, 210 Common, 153 Forster’s, 101 Bridled, 91 Sooty, and 850 Black Terns all from a stationary count at Fort George Inlet (Pranty, 2002).

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Black-legged Kittiwake is a very rare migrant, producing only four known reports in Duval County. The first record is of a bird photographed at Jacksonville Beach by Jay Clark on 10 March 1971 (Stevenson, 1971). On 21 January 1973, John Hintermister and Paul Sykes reported up to fifty adults offshore of Mayport, on a trip organized by the Florida Ornithological Society (note: also reference the Little Gull account below). A decade later, a specimen was collected at Huguenot Memorial Park on 9 January 1983 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). The most recent account is of one reported on the Christmas Bird Count on 28 December 1980.

Sabine’s Gull Xema sabini
There are three known reports of Sabine’s Gull from Duval County, all coming from Huguenot Memorial Park. The first report was from Roger Clark on 10-12 June 1995 (Paul & Schnapf, 1995), followed by another on 6 June 1999. Clark recalled doing a mid-summer “big day” with a handful of other birders when they came across this gull sitting on the beach amid hordes of suntan lotion-lathered sunbathers. (If you’ve been to Huguenot in the summer, I’m sure you can picture that scene perfectly in your head). The gull eventually took off after allowing several minutes of detailed observation (R. Clark, personal communication, 2008). Most recently, Jerry Krummrich reported an immature Sabine’s at Huguenot on 19 October 2003 (Pranty, 2004).

Like Black-legged Kittiwake, this species is extremely rare in northeast Florida and should not be expected in any year.

Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Bonaparte’s Gulls are annual in winter and early spring in northeast Florida. Grimes (1945, p.19) noted they did not arrive before early November, and that arrival time holds true in recent years (2014-2020). In fact, Bonaparte’s are usually found more towards late November or the first week of December. They become uncommon again by April, and if you can find one in late April or early May you’ll likely be treated to seeing them in near-breeding plumage.

The best place to view them in Duval County is along the lagoon at Huguenot Memorial Park, where they can be seen feeding with the Red-breasted Mergansers. You can also look for them coastally at places like Little Talbot Island State Park, Hanna Park, or the Jacksonville Beach Pier, and occasionally they can be found along the river from Reddie Point Preserve.

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
In December 1998, Roger Clark found a Black-headed Gull on Black Hammock Island during the Christmas Bird Count. The bird was eventually seen by many and was accepted by the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee. It is the only county record to date, and remained a state review species as of 2014.

Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus
Patrick and Doris Leary recorded a Little Gull on Big Bird Island in Nassau Sound on 28 October 2014. The only previous report is from offshore Mayport on a pelagic trip on 21 January 1973, a trip organized by the “newly formed” Florida Ornithological Society (Woolfenden, 1973). Little Gull is an extremely rare species for the State of Florida, but only a few birders made the effort to relocate the 2014 bird despite good weather conditions for making the six mile round-trip hike to Big Bird Island from Little Talbot Island State Park.

Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla
Laughing Gull is the predominant gull species in Duval County and can be found in all seasons. In the spring and summer, they create quite a spectacle at Huguenot Memorial Park where they provide one of the largest breeding colonies on the east coast of the United States, with individuals numbering close to 10,000.

This is quite a change from 1945, when Grimes (1945, p.17) noted Laughing Gull as a “non-breeding, year-round resident”. As many early county records came from the mouth of the St. Johns River and the Ward’s Bank / Huguenot area, it is impossible to imagine the species nesting there and going undetected. Further, Grimes went on to state “I know of no nesting ground within two hundred miles of Jacksonville”. This continued until at least the summer of 1990, when West (1991) noted two nests at Huguenot where “they are rare nesters”. Certainly those managing the land at Huguenot Memorial Park deserve some credit and a debt of gratitude for making it a hospitable area for the gulls in present day.

In 2013, Rex Rowan observed numbers of Laughing Gulls passing through western Duval County and theorized that based on a direct line of flight from the landfill in Baker County to Huguenot Memorial Park (40 miles in each direction), perhaps the adults of the breeding colony were traveling that distance for food (R. Rowan, personal communication, 2013). On 7 April 2013, I visited Taye Brown Regional Park in Duval County (also conveniently in a direct line between those two aforementioned locations), and counted 1,800 Laughing Gulls from 07:00 to 08:30 – roughly one third of the breeding colony at Huguenot! In addition to this just being a spectacular experience, it could warrant further observation and study by an enthusiastic birder or researcher.

Franklin’s Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan
Franklin’s Gull is a rare but annual species in Duval County, with a handful of reports each year. The earliest report dates to a few individuals Bryan Obst noted off Mayport on 19 November 1977 (Edscorn, 1978). Many years later, two were reported from 23 October – 16 November 2003 (Pranty, 2004).

The best time to see the species is in the month of October; by early November it is still possible to find one but much less likely. The latest seasonal record is from 2 December 2009, while the earliest is 2 October 2014. Huguenot Memorial Park is the best – and easiest – place to search for them, but several records have also come from Big Bird Island and the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park. In November 2015, Bob Richter photographed two Franklin’s a remarkable twenty miles up river in Ortega, providing the first known inland county record of the species. When trying for them at Huguenot, I would suggest trying first thing in the morning or within the last ninety minutes prior to dusk in the evening.

The preferred location at Huguenot is at the south side of the jetties along the river where the gulls and terns routinely roost, and if you can coincide the visit while the tide is in, so much the better as it concentrates the birds closer to the beach. Another good place to find them in the evening is among the group of larids strung out along the shore from the base of the jetties north about 3/4 mile past the lifeguard station. This group of birds will also allow for slow driving parallel to the flock from a reasonable distance – while not creating a disturbance for them.

Finding a Franklin’s there still requires patience and a degree of persistence, but it is very possible to see at least one (as as many as five or six) on any evening visit to Huguenot in October. My technique has been to scan the large congregations of birds along the river by the jetties, paying particular attention to the fringes of the mixed flocks – most of the Franklin’s I’ve seen tend to “loosely associate” with the Laughing Gulls, meaning they mix with them but seem to prefer to stay along the edges or shortly distant of groups; Franklin’s are rarely found deep in a large group of birds there. This technique once again proved effective on 11 October 2015, when Marie and I were able to quickly pick out a Franklin’s within five minutes after sunrise. I’ve managed to find them annually since, from 2015 through 2019.

Heermann’s Gull Larus heermanni

There is one record of Heermann’s Gull in Duval County. The bird was first reported 26 April 2020 at Huguenot Memorial Park by Lesley Royce, and then from just across the river at the Mayport / Hanna Park north beach access on 4 May 2020. It was seen fairly regularly at “the poles” at Hanna Park (a popular surfing spot) through 19 June. On 21 June 2020, I saw the bird again at Huguenot Memorial Park, and while I was watching it, a Common Eider swum up and laid down right behind it. This is undoubtedly the only record of Common Eider and Heermann’s Gull in the same photo in the state of Florida, ever. My observation on 21 June 2020 was the last report of the bird in Duval County.

Common Eider and Heermann’s Gull.

There is some conjecture that this might be the same Heermann’s seen as far south as Miami-Dade at Crandon Park in the fall of 2019, which is some 380 miles away. The species was also recorded in Palm Beach County a month after the Crandon Park sighting, and as far north as Brevard County three months before the Crandon report. I think it’s just as likely that there were multiple Heermann’s along Florida’s coast that year.

Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis 

Ring-billed Gull is a common fall and winter species, with first cycle birds really arriving in mid-September and increasing through October and November. By December they can be found in parking lots and most coastal or river side locations throughout the county. This pattern of seasonal abundance doesn’t seem to have changed much since the 1940’s when they were said to have reached peak numbers by early December (Grimes, 1945, p. 17). Prior to that, the largest concentration of the species in the state in the early 1900’s was noted as 2,000 reported on the 1924 Christmas Bird Count (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). In present day, some may be found throughout the summer but they are much less numerous and can be missed more often than found.

Herring Gull Larus argentatus

In 1945, Grimes (p. 17) noted Herring Gull as a year-round resident found abundantly along the coast except during June, July, and August. Today, the Herring Gull is a common species found in almost all seasons at locations north of the St. John’s River; found in significantly lesser numbers south of the river in Jacksonville’s beaches. We predominantly get immature birds, but in October and November a few magnificent adult plumaged birds can be found at Huguenot Memorial Park, providing a rather unique opportunity to study adult Herring and adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls standing next to each other in your scope view. Around the jetties at Huguenot is the prime spot to find this species dependably.

Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri

There are no records of Thayer’s Gull, and when I wrote this manuscript in 2012, Thayer’s Gull was still a recognized species. It has since been lumped in with Iceland Gulls, but I leave this entry regardless.

Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides

Iceland Gull is a rare species in Florida, but has become a near-annual occurrence at Huguenot Memorial Park. Early records include 10 February 1968 and another at Mayport on 22 January 1972 (Stevenson, 1972).

Most subsequent observations are of single, first cycle birds and come from mid-December through the second week of February: 2 February 1981 (Stevenson, 1981), 1 January 1988 (Ogden, 1988), 14 February 2005 (Anderson, 2005). Early fall observations include 9 October 1993 (Wamer, 1994) and 13 November 1976 (Edscorn, 1977).

I have also recorded them twice in March, and there is another spring record from 1 April 2009. They are most often found along the area of the jetties at Huguenot, but many observations from 2010 -2014 have also come from the north end of the park along the beach or out on the sandbars between Huguenot and Little Talbot Island State Park. There are at least two reports from a little further up river at Helen Floyd Cooper Park and the Mayport Ferry slip (28-31 December 2012).

On 29 December 2007, a first cycle Iceland Gull was recorded on the George Crady fishing pier which spans Nassau Sound and connects Duval and Nassau Counties. This was an extremely tame bird that was often seen taking food from fisherman, which also allowed for close study and fantastic photographic opportunities. The bird remained through the month of January 2008.

In 2014, two individuals were found at Huguenot, with one quickly falling ill and perishing, while the other bird remained through the spring season and into the early summer season. Unfortunately, this bird also eventually perished and was collected.

Since 2014, there have been only two records of the species in Duval County, one on 18 January 2015 observed at Huguenot by Bob Richter, and another on 3 February 2018 that Marie and I recorded at Huguenot. That bird was my fifteenth and last observation of the species in Duval, and came on a magnificent outing where we found both an Iceland and a Glaucous Gull in the same morning flock!

Unlike the also rare Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gulls are more apt to remain at least for a few days, making them a more “chaseable” species for birders.

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus

Once considered a rare bird in Florida (as recently as fifteen to twenty years ago), Lesser Black-backed Gulls are now regular at some of our coastal locations, particularly Huguenot Memorial Park and the south or north end of Little Talbot Island State Park. On 4 November 1995, Noel Wamer recorded twenty-six of them at Huguenot; Rowan (1995) noted it as the “largest concentration ever recorded in Duval County”. That number has certainly since been eclipsed, but provides some historical perspective on how the abundance of the species has changed in recent decades.

In October, it is not uncommon to find anywhere from seventy to one hundred twenty individuals at Huguenot, and from mid-October through November the numbers of adult birds of the species can be in the dozens. Similar to the distribution of Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are much easier to find north of the St. Johns River. South of the river, the only location I’d even suggest searching for them is along Hanna Park’s beach. Once again, Huguenot is the place to go for this bird.

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus

Glaucous Gull is a rare but nearly annual species in Duval County, with records from almost every year the last twenty years, and many periodic reports in previous decades ranging from 1972 through 2001 (see next paragraph). They are most often found from mid-December to early February, but there are a handful of early spring records including one from 23 April 2009 (R. Clark), and another from 18 April through 31 May 2020.

They are usually found singly, but there have been at least two reports of two birds in a single morning at Huguenot Memorial Park, both of these observations in early January. All records are of first and second cycle birds. At least two suspected Nelson’s Gulls (Glaucous x Herring hybrids) have also been recorded at Huguenot in recent winters. The best place to look for Glaucous Gull is around the jetties at Huguenot, and it’s worth noting that they rarely wander north from there even to the north end of the park. It’s also worth considering that the majority of observations are “one day wonders”, meaning that if you’re intent on seeing one you should make every attempt to go look as soon as you see it reported.

While this is not a comprehensive list, some of the earlier known records (predating heavy use of eBird) include: 2 March 1974, 24 May 1975 (Kale, 1975), 8 April 1978 and 5 May 1979 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), four at Huguenot on 18 January 1981 (Stevenson, 1981), 25 December 1982 (Hoffman, 1983), 6 February 1991 (Ogden, 1991), 10 December 2000 – 19 January 2001 (Anderson, 2001), and 17-22 January 2003 (Anderson, 2003).

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus

Once noted as a “very rare straggler” by Grimes (1945, p. 17), the Great Black-backed Gull is now regular in most seasons, and about half the individuals seen are adult birds. Other early records include 6 June 1971 and a specimen collected at Mayport on 6 July 1974 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Of course they are most often seen from Huguenot, but also occur regularly at Helen Floyd Cooper, Hanna Park, and Little Talbot Island State Park. Occasionally, single individuals are seen dozens of miles up river perched on light poles on the Buckman Bridge heading towards the Orange Park area.

This fantastic species is often noted as a dominant one in the gull world, which is perhaps exhibited in the fact that it is the most likely species to be seen adorning the buoys in the St. John’s River just offshore of Huguenot Memorial Park. You can also often pick this massive gull out with the naked eye roosting on the mudflats in the lagoon at Huguenot at low tide; indeed, Grimes described them as standing out “from the common herd like a couple of vultures in a flock of crows”.

Brown Noddy Anous stolidus

Brown Noddy is an extremely rare pelagic species with just a few Duval County records. The first report is of five individuals at Jacksonville Beach on 5 September 1950 and according to the report, the observers were able to get within twenty feet of the birds (Brookfield, 1951). The next report is from offshore on 10 September 1960 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), followed by the next some eighteen years later of a bird perched on a buoy near the Mayport jetties on 26 July 1978 (Ogden, 1978). Another was reported at Jacksonville Beach following Hurricane David in September 1979 (Atherton and Atherton, 1980).

Following Tropical Storm Fay on 21-22 August 2008, Marie and I joined Roger Clark under the bridge spanning Fort George Inlet (just north of and overlooking Huguenot Memorial Park) as the storm squalls continued to pass through. In addition to other wonderful pelagic species like dozens of Bridled and Sooty Terns, two Brown Boobies, one Long-tailed Jaeger, and flocks of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, we were treated to at least a dozen Brown Noddies coming in for refuge. Most of them concentrated along the western edge of the shoreline of Little Talbot Island State Park about one hundred yards from us, but at least one individual circled overhead so close that we thought it would hit us in the head.

On 4 September 2019 as Hurricane Dorian passed through, a Noddy was  photographed at the Simpson Creek Bridge on Big Talbot Island.

Aside from storm birding opportunities like this, about the only reasonable chance to ever see this species in Duval County is to head offshore in May or late August.

Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus

Historically, the earliest report of Sooty Tern is of four individuals noted off Jacksonville Beach on 5 September 1950 (Brookfield, 1951). The next report is decades later on 2 August 1995, when Hurricane Erin “deposited a Sooty Tern and a Bridled Tern to Fort George Island” (Rowan, pers comm, 2016). The next report comes from 5 and 13 July 1997 (Paul & Schnapf, 1997).

Sooty Terns are another very rare species that are best seen offshore of Mayport. The “other best way” to see them is to get under the Fort George Inlet bridge during or just after a tropical storm in August or September. This technique produced ninety-one individuals on 16 September 2001 (R. Clark, personal communication, 2006), and seventy-five on 21 August 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay. A few were observed during Hurricane Dorian’s passage in early September 2019, and in May of 2020 one visited the nesting colony at Huguenot Memorial Park, where it was photographed sitting in the dunes near nesting Laughing Gulls.

Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus

Bridled Tern is a species very similar to Sooty Tern, and is also very similar in rarity and observation history in Duval County. The first noted record is of a specimen Grimes collected at Jacksonville Beach on 9 September 1950 (Brookfield, 1951). Coincidentally, the next known record is from the same month and day – two birds offshore on 9 September 1973 (Edscorn, 1974). One made it to Fort George Island on 2 August 1995 (see Sooty Tern account above). On 16 September 2001, one-hundred one Bridleds were observed at Fort George Inlet (R. Clark), and during the Tropical Storm Fay birding extravaganza in August 2008, four were recorded in the Fort George Inlet. I observed another on 19 May 2009, and more than ten years passed before the next observation on 4 September 2020 during Dorian.

Least Tern Sternula antillarum

Grimes (1945, p. 19) noted Least Tern as a “common summer resident from late April to late September”; he also noted a very late account of a single individual on 22 December 1929 – a record that is suspect by today’s understanding of the species’ seasonal abundance.

In modern times, Least Terns arrive around the third week of March and are found with regularity by the first of April. They breed in many areas throughout the county, including on many flat gravel rooftops like the J.C. Penney at Regency Square Mall and the old Sears Warehouse at Imeson Center. By the middle of September they are gone from the area.

Two of the most convenient places to see them are at the fishing dock at Reddie Point Preserve and along the interior of Huguenot Memorial Park, where they can often be found loafing on the mudflats. In 2020, I discovered a significant breeding colony on the interior dunes at Huguenot along the river side; I estimated the number of nests in the mid-sixties.

Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica

Noted as an irregular visitor in 1945, with a first documented observation of 11 July 1925, the Gull-billed Tern is now an annual summer resident and limited breeding species in Duval County (Grimes, 1945, p.19). In June 1979 sixty-seven pairs were nesting at Mayport (Ogden, 1979), perhaps the highest breeding count in local history. Today, they arrive in late March and can be found with some regularity from April through August, departing in late September. Very few records are from early October.

Although regular during those months, the Gull-billed Tern is found in low numbers even at the prime locations, with few observations surpassing a handful of individuals at a time. It is a real treat to see as many as ten to twelve in a given day. Although up to forty could be seen in the summer of 1997 at Huguenot (Paul & Schnapf, 1997); that is a number you’re very unlikely to experience now.

Gull-billed Terns can be found hawking fiddler crabs on the marshes’ vast mudflats behind Alimacani Boat Ramp (SR 105/A1A) or at Huguenot Memorial Park – usually along the northwest portion of the park. They are rarely found on Huguenot’s ocean side beach. Another fairly reliable location for the species is Nassau Sound from either the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park / Big Bird Island or from Spoonbill Pond and Big Talbot Island State Park’s north beach. Beginning in 2017, they can also be found in low numbers along Heritage River Road.

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia

Following the first noted observation in February 1926 (Howell, 1932), Grimes referred to Caspian Terns as a “fairly common winter resident” in 1945 (Grimes, 1945, p. 21). Today, Caspian Terns are still most abundant in fall and winter, but they do occur in very low numbers in spring and summer. This large tern is almost exclusively found here near salt water, so places along the north end of the St. Johns River (e.g., Reddie Point Preserve) can produce them, but they are best sought at our beaches. Jacksonville beach, Hanna Park, Huguenot Memorial Park, and Little Talbot Island State Park are the best destinations.

Caspians are not known to breed here, but we do start seeing juvenile or hatch year birds in early fall at Huguenot.

Black Tern Chlidonias niger

Black Tern is another species that has retained a very consistent seasonal abundance during the last century. Grimes noted them as common from mid-May through June, and then present in greater numbers during fall migration with birds moving through from late July through mid-September (Grimes, 1945, p.21). This is a near-identical pattern that we experience today. The highest number reported was eight-hundred fifty at Fort George Inlet during Hurricane Gabrielle on 16 September 2001 (R. Clark); prior to that the high count was of five-hundred sixty following Tropical Storm Jerry on 25 August 1995 (Rowan, pers comm, 2016). Other high counts include two hundred at Huguenot on 17 August 1985 (Atherton, Atherton, 1986).

In spring, Black Terns can be sought at suitable locations and still missed more often than seen, but they do move through throughout the month of May. Beginning in mid to late July, look for them along the sandbars and ocean edge at the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park and Huguenot Memorial Park. They can also be found (with a little more luck) at Hanna Park. They are fairly regular at those locations through August and start declining in September. After October 1st they become very difficult again.

Unlike Common Tern, Black Terns are sometimes noted up river from the fishing pier at Reddie Point Preserve. Another great way to experience the species and observe them in multiple plumages is to get just offshore in late July, August, or early September. A trip aboard the casino boat out of Mayport ($10) used to be a great and inexpensive option for an afternoon a sea; now it’ll cost you much more to join a fishing charter.

Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii

There are two reports of Roseate Tern for Duval County, the first was of a bird observed at Mayport on 7 April 1974 by Grimes, Powell, and Markgraf (Kale, 1974). Forty-six years later, I found one sitting amidst a flock of gulls and terns at Huguenot Memorial Park on 24 June 2020. I was able to observe the bird for well over an hour, and actually walked away from it.

Given the extreme rarity of the species here, an astonishingly few people searched for it over the next couple days and it was never relocated. As an aside, that’s something I don’t quite understand…earlier in the spring of 2020, over twenty birders chased an Upland Sandpiper at Westside Industrial Park, which is a species that occurs here at least every three to five years. But a bird the magnitude of a Roseate Tern – a species not seen in at least a generation (or two) locally – attracted the attention of just three local birders.

Roseate Tern. Huguenot Memorial Park, 24 June 2020.

Incidentally, other “nearby” records for Roseate Tern are from Jekyll Island, GA (10 May 2006) and Ponce de Leon Inlet, FL (23 June 2014), some one hundred or so miles to the south.

Common Tern Sterna hirundo

Grimes speculated that the Common Tern was perhaps a common winter resident, based on observations made in early fall (Grimes, 1945, p.19). Whether they were more common then or not is undetermined, but they are certainly rare in winter in present day. Individual birds can sometimes be found at Huguenot Memorial Park as late as the last two weeks of November, but reports after that in winter should be accompanied by photo or video evidence.

The spectacular Common Tern is almost exclusively coastal in Duval County and most observations west of the Dames Point Bridge have proven to be misidentified birds (Forster’s Terns from Reddie Point Preserve, for example). Look for Common Tern at places like Huguenot Memorial Park or Little Talbot Island State Park from April through October, with numbers highest in August and early September. The movement of these terns in fall (August) seems to coincide with Black Tern, but Commons linger in small numbers through October. The highest known count followed Tropical Storm Jerry on 25 August 1995 when six-hundred eighty were observed along Fort George Inlet/Huguenot (Rowan, pers comm, 2016).

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea

Arctic Tern is a very rare species in Duval County, with just a handful of reports and even fewer records. The first report comes from 13 May 2001, where Roger Clark observed one some twenty miles offshore on a fishing charter. On 28 November 2002, Clark found three individuals at Huguenot Memorial Park following a nor’easter; to date that is the high count for the species in the county.

The only other reports come from 23-25 May 2009, where numerous visiting birders reported a single individual from Huguenot Memorial Park while searching for the Greater Sand-Plover.

Forster’s Tern Sterna forsteri

The earliest Forster’s Tern is a specimen taken from Talbot Island on 21 January 1917 (Howell, 1932). Grimes (1945, p. 19) noted the Forster’s Tern as a common winter resident and irregular in summer. He also described being able to confirm his observation of non-breeding individuals by their call, which was the only way he could safely separate them from Common Tern. This is certainly still a challenging ID, but is perhaps also reflective of the quality of optics and field guides available in the 1930’s, or the fact that he preferred his camera over using field glasses.

In any case, Forster’s Tern can be found almost year-round in Duval County. They are most scarce in the height of the summer during late June and all of July, and are perhaps most abundant during September and January.

Forster’s is a tern that can be found along the marshes, creeks, and quite a ways up the St. Johns River – even all the way south to the Duval / Clay County line. They are commonly seen (in the right season) at some inland ponds, like the large one at M&M Dairy. However, like most of our terns they are best observed along the coast with the highest concentrations at Huguenot Memorial Park and Little Talbot Island State Park. They are not known to breed here.

Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus
Like the Laughing Gull, Royal Terns nest in large numbers at Huguenot Memorial Park with numbers in the summer reaching some six to eight thousand birds. Also like the Laughing Gull, this species is curiously absent in Grimes’ detailed accounts of breeding birds in the county. From what I can gather, they were not a breeding species in the 1930’s and ’40’s, and were nesting in limited numbers beginning in 1968 at Bird Island in Nassau Sound. By July 1970, Grimes noted over one thousand nests there with most nests containing a single egg. Ogden (1970) declared it was the southernmost colony on the Atlantic Coast of the United States.

In 2000 after a visit to Huguenot, Noel Wamer remarked “The positive news would be the impressive numbers of juvenile Royal Terns in the north end flats. I didn’t count, but would guess the numbers were in the range of two to three hundred, if not more. There were obviously many more breeding pair present in the dunes than could be seen from the limits of the restricted area” (N. Wamer, 2000).

Royal Tern is certainly our most abundant tern in Duval County, most often found east of the Dames Point Bridge. You should be able to find them in any season along any of Jacksonville’s beaches.

Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis
Sandwich Tern was apparently a rare species here in the early 1900’s, with just one record before 1945 – that of six birds on 5 September 1935 (Grimes, 1945, p.20).

These days, Sandwich Tern can be most abundant in early to mid August, where you can find as many as one hundred twenty-five to one hundred fifty on the beaches at Huguenot Memorial Park. They become fairly rare in winter and are sometimes missed altogether on the County’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Their abundance increases each spring by the third week of March.

Aside from a few questionable reports from Reddie Point Preserve and Blue Cypress Park, observations of Sandwich Tern are almost exclusively coastal as one would expect. Places like Hanna Park’s beaches, Huguenot Memorial Park, and Little Talbot Island State Park are the areas to seek them.

Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Black Skimmers were known to breed north of the Saint Johns River in Howell’s time (1932, p. 273). Grimes (1945, p. 21) noted them as a common resident, with “flocks of 500 to 1000 in winter about the mouths of the St. Johns and Nassau Rivers”. In 1945, two to three hundred pairs were said to have nested at the south end of Little Talbot Island, and even then Grimes lamented the “thoughtless fishermen” and other “pleasure seekers” that crossed the inlet and disturbed the nesting. Doubtless, they did not have personal watercraft in the years leading up to World War Two, but it’s interesting to note the problems of the present may also be the problems of the past.

On 28 June 1978, Loftin and Ellis recaptured a banded Black Skimmer at Huguenot Memorial Park. The skimmer had been banded in McIntosh County, Georgia, on 13 August 1958, making the bird six weeks shy of being twenty years old. At the time, this was the oldest known Black Skimmer but unfortunately it did not make it much longer. Loftin and Ellis retained the healthy bird after capture, and sent it to Iowa for physiological studies where it soon perished in captivity (Kale & Loftin, 1982).

Paul (1982) noted one hundred forty-five pairs nesting at Huguenot; slightly down from the numbers Grimes mentioned in 1945 at Little Talbot Island but significantly higher than any known nest sites along our coast today.

In recent years, the species can be found on nearly any visit to Huguenot Memorial Park, Fort George Inlet, Little Talbot Island State Park, and Hanna Park’s beaches north to the mouth of the St. Johns River. They are considerably most abundant in December and January, where seeing a group of one thousand birds is not uncommon.

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