Sparrows and other Emberizids

Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus
There is one record of Green-tailed Towhee in county history, a bird recorded by Samuel Ewing at Little Talbot Island State Park on the morning of 3 March 2016. I spoke with Sam that evening at the location and he said he came across the bird quite by accident; he walked the length of the park south along the beach and then was heading back to the campground along the interior paved road of the park looking for snakes. He was watching a garter snake when the towhee caught his attention. After managing a few pictures, he fetched his brother and made it back an hour or so later where the two of them enjoyed the bird awhile longer. At the time of the sighting, the species was still a review species in Florida due to its considerable rarity. Despite the efforts of many birders the next several days, the bird was not credibly reported again.

Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Eastern Towhee is a rather common year-round resident species that can be found in all parts of the county. Both “red-eyed” and “white-eyed” sub-specific forms occur, but there is really little-to-no understanding of the actual distribution and abundance of one form (race) versus the other. For eBird users, I would encourage the use of the sub-specific forms when you are able to visually confirm them so that perhaps one day we’ll have a better picture of those respective populations.

Eastern Towhees can be found in abundance at Cedar Point Preserve by walking the trail past the oak hammocks and into the pine forest. They can also be found readily around the parking lot at Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, Betz-Tiger Point, and Seaton Creek Historic Preserve. They can also be expected at most of the other local birding hotspots, as they certainly occur at Huguenot Memorial Park, Fort George Island, and Ringhaver Park. You can also hear them calling frequently at Spoonbill Pond on Big Talbot Island.

Bachman’s Sparrow Aimophila aestivalis
Bachman’s Sparrow is a very localized breeding species that is best seen beginning in March and throughout the summer into early September. From September through the winter, they can be very difficult to hear or see as they skulk in the underbrush.

Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve is one of our excellent locations for the species; follow the trail from the parking lot just past the kiosk about two tenths of a mile in, then turn left. The field in front of you and along the right of the path hosts many breeding pairs, and in March it is quite easy to see them singing incessantly from their exposed perches. There is no need to use playback to bring them in, and please refrain from doing so.

The other reliable location for them is in the Duval County portion of the Cary State Forest, which can be accessed from the Nassau County side off US 301 or from the Duval side at the Garden Street entrance. From this entrance, drive in a mile or so until you see the appropriate habitat (low palmettos under pine trees) and search for them. The Cary Forest is accessed by relatively flat dirt roads and a four wheel drive or high clearance is not really required to traverse the area, but use good judgment and avoid flooded areas or you may find yourself stuck in a very remote area.

Bachman’s Sparrow. 4 Mar 2018.

I believe the best location to find them, however, is at Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area, where you can encounter them beginning just about thirty yards up the main trail from your parking space. They are fairly abundant throughout the property, but are densely concentrated along that first quarter to half mile in, right from the parking lot.

Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla
Field Sparrow is an uncommon but annual winter resident that can be found with some effort from about the second week of November through the first week of April; there are no known records from May through October.

Look for them around grassy areas like along power line cuts, the edges of fields and dunes, and in sandhill areas like Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park. The brushy trails at Blue Cypress Park and Reddie Point Preserve in spring are good places to search as well, but the absolute most reliable spot for them is along the edge of the dunes on the south end of Little Talbot Island State Park off A1A. You will usually see only one to three in any given place; the most reported from a single location was five that I observed at Little Talbot on 23 December 2011.

Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Chipping Sparrows are winter residents and can be commonly found at backyard feeders throughout the county. Unless you have access to someone’s backyard, search for them on the grounds of Blue Cypress Park, the picnic table areas at Little Talbot Island State Park, and around the fishing dock and playground at Sheffield Regional Park. On the west side of town, look for them at Taye Brown Regional Park and the parking lot and softball fields of Ringhaver Park.

Clay-colored Sparrow Spizella pallida
Clay-colored Sparrow is probably an annual winter resident or transient species, but there are actually very few reports to support that theory. Winter observations include Virg Markgraf’s 4-12 December 1974 report (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), her 22-26 November 1978 bird (Edscorn, 1979), and her account of three birds 4 February 1974 (Stevenson, 1974). On 12 December 2000, Roger Clark reported 3 from Little Talbot Island State Park (Pranty, 1999), and other winter reports include 3 December 2004 (Anderson, 2005). While precise records aren’t available, there were many reports from 2000-2010 in winter along A1A on Little Talbot Island (Clark, pers communication, 2010).

Other observations of the species are from spring; curiously there were no known fall records prior to 2017. Spring observations include 29 Apr 1968, 23 April 1980 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), 26 April 1997 (R. Clark), March 1999 (Pranty, 1999), 23 April 2013 (D. Pridgen), and one enjoyed by many observers at Reddie Point on 20 April 2013 (first reported by R. Rowan and I was fortunate to be birding that morning with Rex when he found it). In recent years, observations came from Hanna Park on 20 September 2017, and Huguenot Memorial Park on 27-28 October 2018 – both birds were photographed by A. Tanner, and both provided the first fall records in the county.

In winter, the best place to look for them would be the edge of the dunes at the south end of Little Talbot Island State Park – check from the parking lot inside the park or along the edges of A1A that runs through the middle of the property. In spring, history suggests the third week of April is the time to look and I’d suggest areas like Little Talbot Island, Reddie Point Preserve, Imeson Center, Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve, and along the road at Helen Floyd Cooper Park in Mayport.

Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus
Lark Sparrow is an extremely uncommon winter transient in Duval County with just ten or so reported observations dating back to 26 December 1965. The second report was from 30 December 1972 and the next two came about five years apart during the Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) on 2 January 1977 and 26 December 1983. In 1994, Roger Clark reported three individuals on 10 November and a single bird on 3-4 December a few weeks later (West & Pranty, 1995). Rex Rowan (1995) noted one at Imeson Center on 7 October 1995 and two more at Huguenot from 9-17 October that same year. Peggy Powell reported one on 21 September 1996 (Wamer, 1997), and Laura Johanssen observed one on 15 March the following year.

The next report came from the 1998 CBC on the 26th of December; it was ten more years until another was recorded on 27 September 2008 (providing just the second fall record). The 2008 bird was found on the grounds of Kingsley Plantation during one of Roger Clark’s field trips and delighted me and two dozen other observers as it worked the leaf litter around the parking lot. Recent records are from Eastport Wastelands in north Jacksonville; I photographed one there on 25 and 26 April 2015, and on 15 November later that year, we were birding with Marie C when she spotted one on the same property. That bird remained through 26 March 2016. Recent reports include one at Little Talbot Island’s south parking lot on 23 January 2019 and one at Huguenot Memorial Park on 22 July 2019.

While I wouldn’t expect this species in any season or year, logical places to keep an eye open for them would be as you’re birding local hotspots like Little Talbot Island State Park, Reddie Point, Eastport Wastelands, Julington-Durbin Creek Preserve, or Imeson Center.

Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum
Grasshopper Sparrow is a very uncommon to rare winter resident that is missed more often than found in a given year, and are more often heard than seen. The latest Spring seasonal record also happens to be the oldest / earliest sight record in the county – 8 May 1886 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). In 1967, a bird observed by V. Markgraf from 2-8 May tied that late date (Stevenson, 1967). Modern day reports range from the last week of October through the last week of April, with no observations from May through mid-October.

There is really no reliable location for them from year to year, but the best place to start your search is the south of Little Talbot Island State Park. Park in the southernmost parking area and check for them around the high grassy areas surrounding the parking lot and the boardwalks leading to the beach. The brushy areas around Imeson Center and at Blue Cypress Park have been good for them in recent years, and on 31 October 2015 Marie and I found a very cooperative one at Eastport Wastelands in N. Jacksonville.

Henslow’s Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow is a very rarely reported species that is undoubtedly more abundant than the handful of reports would indicate. The earliest known report comes from a bird collected by K.L. Painter at the base of the TV tower in downtown Jacksonville on 12 April 1961 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), followed relatively closely by another report on the 1961 and 1965 Christmas Bird Counts. There was a spate of observations some thiryt-three years later when Roger Clark recorded five of them on 7 January 1994 (West & Pranty, 1995), three were reported later that year on 22 September 1995 (West, 1996), and six more in a “wet powerline cut” near Otis Road (Rowan, 1995) on 19 November 1995 (Wamer & Pranty, 1996). Clark observed five on 3 December 1995 at Mecklenburg Dairy Farm (Rowan, 1996). On 14 January 2016, L. Flesher photographed one at Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area, providing the first verifiable record since that specimen collected over fifty years prior.

There is still plenty of suitable habitat for the species left in the county; I would suggest the damp areas around the power line cut in the Cary State Forest along the Duval/Nassau County line, the end of Shark Road East on Black Hammock Island, and the marshes along A1A on Little Talbot Island and around Spoonbill Pond.

Saltmarsh Sparrow Ammodramus caudacutus
Although they surely occurred in the area for much longer, the earliest report of Saltmarsh Sparrow is one reported by Robert Loftin at Huguenot Memorial Park on 16 September 1979, which by today’s standards would still be considered notably early in the fall season (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).

There are a handful of very reliable locations to search for Saltmarsh Sparrows and these same locations will undoubtedly produce nelsoni and maritimus. My favorite place to search for them is in the tidal marshes at the end of Shark Rd East on Black Hammock Island. Park on the side of the street and put your rubber boots on, then walk out into the marsh on the northwest side of the road to look for all three species. As of this writing the area is still accessible and undeveloped, but that may change in coming years as I believe the area is privately owned.

Another reliable area is the marshes on the west side of A1A just past the entrance to Huguenot Memorial Park and behind the publicly owned Alimacani Park and Boat Ramp at Fort George Inlet. Again, waterproof shoes or boots is recommended when looking in these areas.

Saltmarsh Sparrow. 18 Nov 2017. Sawpit Creek Boatramp.

Two drier options also exist for seeking out these three target species; Spoonbill Pond area and the marsh overlook at Theodore Roosevelt Area. Walk along the western edges of A1A or the fishing bridge on Big Talbot Island State Park at Spoonbill Pond and around the raised observation platform at “Teddy” Roosevelt; both areas have an abundance of Seaside Sparrows and are likely to yield one or both “sharp-tailed” sparrows on any given visit in winter. From 2016-2020, the Sawpit Creek boat ramp at Big Talbot Island State Park (just across from Spoonbill Pond) has been the number one place to look; early mornings are best and try to time a visit with high tide, as the sparrows can be found up on the rocks quite easily.

Le Conte’s Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii
Like its cousin henslowii, the Le Conte’s Sparrow is a seemingly extremely rare winter resident that I suspect is more abundant in the area than is realized. The earliest known record comes from the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on 26 December 1977, which was apparently overlooked when three found on 19 November 1995 were reported as the reputed first county record (Wamer & Pranty, 1996). Also overlooked in 1996’s report: Mark Dolan and Rex Rowan observed two at Imeson Center from 20 December 1993 to mid-February 1994 (Rowan, pers communication, 2016). Three were observed along with six Henslow’s in a powerline cut off Otis Road on 19 November 1995; two days later Jerry Krummrich observed one in Baldwin (Rowan, 1995). On 26 December 1999, one was reported on the CBC followed by another the next year on 30 December 2000, a bird observed by Rowan (Anderson, 2001).

On 3 January 2009 one was observed along the south boardwalk at Little Talbot Island State Park, a bird which I was able to relocate with Roger Clark later that day. That boardwalk leading from the parking lot to the ocean bisected perfect habitat for a couple hundred yards but it has unfortunately changed dramatically since that time and no longer appears favorable for the species. Almost seven years passed before the next report; one bird was observed at close distance by Marie and me at Eastport Wastelands on 21 November 2015, while we were enjoying the Lark Sparrow. In fact, we had both species in the same binocular view!

Nelson’s Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni
Nelson’s Sparrow is found in the same habitat and season as the Saltmarsh Sparrow noted above, and I have found nelsoni to be perhaps three to four times more abundant than caudacutus. On any given search for them in the hotspots noted above, you’ll likely encounter many more of this species than the former.

Nelson’s Sparrow. 3 Feb 2018. Sawpit Creek boatramp.

Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus
Seaside Sparrow is a bit of a tricky species in Duval County, as they are year-round resident breeding species but give most casual birders the impression that they are a winter resident only. While it is true that they are easier to find in winter for most birdwatchers, they can be incredibly easy to find in summer as well if you look in the right place – the salt marsh! In winter, they can be found around the observation tower at Theodore Roosevelt Area, the fishing dock at Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, and along the edges of the marsh across from Spoonbill Pond.

Seaside Sparrow. 18 Nov 2017. Sawpit Creek boatramp.

Two other excellent locations are just behind the picnic shelter at Alimacani boat ramp and the edge of Shark Road East on Black Hammock Island. In summer, they breed in the expansive salt marsh north of the St. Johns River, which is to say throughout the Timucuan Preserve. If you have access to a kayak, put in along any of the creeks north of Heckscher Drive or Pumpkin Hill creek and you will practically have them (and curious Marsh Wrens) jumping in your boat.

Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca
The earliest reports of this very uncommon species comes from the 1929 and 1930 Christmas Bird Counts (CBC), where they occurred intermittently for decades until a remarkable twenty-four were counted on the 1960 CBC (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Other observations include the 1965 CBC, one by Julie Cocke on 4 November 1976 (Edscorn, 1977), 25 November 1992 (West & Wamer, 1993), and a 26 December 1998 report by Rex Rowan (West & Anderson, 1999). From 2000 to 2003, Clark located them twice around the edges of the cypress domes at Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park. Those low lying areas which were once wet have been dry for many years – to the point that several large Wood Stork rookeries have been abandoned for more suitable areas.

Fox Sparrow. Duval County, Jacksonville, FL

I had never seen a Fox Sparrow in Duval County through 2018, but there were a few areas I checked for them repeatedly each winter: the edges of Pumpkin Hill, the power line clearings near M&M Dairy and Cary State Forest, the swamp forest on the backside of Sheffield Regional Park, and at Seaton Creek Historic Preserve, where I predicted I’d find one back in 2014.

I visited Seaton Creek on the morning of 13 January 2019 and walked a few miles around the trails when I encountered two Fox Sparrows on the Houston Trail. The birds were in dense habitat that consisted of leafy understory and crowded saw palmettos. They were doing the “smack” call, and were quite obliging for a few photographs. I periodically make my disdain for using playback known, and I’ll iterate that here – I didn’t use playback at all to locate or photograph these species, but unfortunately I know that others that chased these birds did…portable Bluetooth speakers and all.

Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis
Savannah Sparrow is undoubtedly our most abundant winter resident sparrow, arriving in early-to-mid October and remaining through mid-April. You are sure to encounter them at any of the birding hot spots in the county, and they are virtually guaranteed at places like Huguenot Memorial Park or Little Talbot Island State Park in winter. If you’re in the western part of the county check for them at Taye Brown Regional Park or Westside Industrial Park.

It’s probably worth noting there have been a handful of sight reports of Ipswich over the years, as early as 29 November 1964 (Stevenson, 1965).

Lincoln’s Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii
Lincoln’s Sparrow is another very rarely reported species in the county, with just a handful of observations over the last fifty years. Kale (1978, p. 997) noted that Robert Loftin collected a tower killed specimen on 4 May 1978, which was noted as “later than any previous record”, and remained the only known verifiable record in the county for over forty years.

Most of the other reports are from Christmas Bird Counts, which honestly make me believe many of the reports are perhaps mis-identified Swamp Sparrows; CBC years include 1964, 1966, 1970, 1972, 1983, 1998, and 2004. Roger Clark reported one from Little Talbot Island State Park on 25 November 1996, and Laura Johannsen reported one off Main Street in north Jacksonville 13 December 2008. There have been a few unsubstantiated reports since, but an accepted report did not occur until Mike Charest photographed one on 6 January 2020 at Julington-Durbin Preserve. That was the first affirmed “record” since the specimen collected in 1978.

There is plenty of suitable habitat for Lincoln’s Sparrow in the county and I’m quite surprised I haven’t seen one (or many more) in all my years birding here. I’m quite familiar with the species, primarily from all my years birding in the western U.S., so I don’t think I’m overlooking them…I just think they’re incredibly rare here for some reason. I’d suggest looking for them along any of the brushy areas in many of our hot spots, particularly at places like Blue Cypress Park, Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, and Cedar Point.

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
The oldest record of Song Sparrow is from 20 April 1959, when a specimen was collected by K. L. Painter after hitting a TV tower in Jacksonville (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). In 1967, Robertson noted the count of 220 on the 1966 Christmas Bird Count was “by far” the largest CBC total ever reported in Florida. They are a common-to-abundant winter species that typically arrive the last week of October and remain through April; there are a handful of May reports but none over summer months.

Although they can be found throughout the county, the species is seemingly most abundant at Little Talbot Island State Park, Reddie Point Preserve, Sheffield Regional Park, and Hanna Park.

Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus
Vesper Sparrow is an uncommon winter resident species in Duval County that can be found with a little effort; they arrive the first week of November and are gone by April 1st. The highest known count comes from the 1965 Christmas Bird Count where an astounding 188 were tallied (Cruickshank, 1966).

Today, there are a few fairly reliable locations for them – Little Talbot Island State Park, M&M Dairy, and Imeson Center. At Little Talbot, enter the park and then drive to the southernmost parking lot, which is furthest from the main entrance (a distance of about two miles). In winter months they are often found on the grounds or in the brushy areas around the picnic pavilions. At Imeson Center, you can find up to as many as twenty along the edges of the road bordering Turner Pond (Busch Drive). Morning is usually best; park in the median or side of the road and walk the brushy edges to find them. At M&M Dairy, they have favored the area around the corner of Port Jacksonville Parkway and New Berlin Road, but it’s only a matter of time before that entire pasture is replaced with industrial warehouses.

Overall, Vesper Sparrow seems to be found along the middle ‘corridor’ of the county, which I define as roughly along the course of Main Street as it runs north towards Nassau County.

Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana
Swamp Sparrow is another fairly common winter resident whose arrival and departure mirrors melodia; that is to say they arrive the last week of October and remain throughout the month of April. There are no known verifiable records from mid-May through the first week of October. Also like the Song Sparrow, they are most reliable at Little Talbot, Sheffield Regional Park, Reddie Point, and Hanna Park.

Swamp Sparrow. M&M Dairy.

Harris’s Sparrow Zonotrichia querula
There is one rather amazing record of this extremely rare western species in Duval County, which was well documented by Sam Grimes on 24 December 1964. The bird remained to the delight of a multitude of observers until 26 March 1965 (Stevenson, 1965).

White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
White-throated sparrow is a winter resident species that typically arrives the second week of November and remains through the end of April. There is only one known report outside of that date range, coming from 31 July 1963; that bird was noted as the first summer record for the entire state (Stevenson, 1963).

In 1986, Peggy Powell remarked that “not one White-throated Sparrow was found that winter, continuing a decline” (Ogden, 1986), a trend that thankfully has not persisted. The species is still uncommon in winter, but can be found with some effort in suitable habitat. As with many of our winter resident sparrows, the best place to search for them is around the edges of the dunes at Little Talbot Island State Park. They can also be found in brushy habitat at other popular birding hotspots like Reddie Point, Blue Cypress Park, Pumpkin Hill State Park, Sheffield Regional Park, and Hanna Park.

White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys
White-crowned Sparrow is a winter resident that arrives the last week of October and tends to remain through the first week of May. The earliest reported sighting is from Mrs. H. E. Robinson on 9 Oct 1963, and the latest seasonal sighting is from 5 May 1964 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). This species has declined significantly in Duval County since 2005, and can now be quite difficult to find. A once reliable place for them was around the parking lot at Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, but in the last eight  years that has been hit or miss.

The absolute best place to find them today is on the south end of Little Talbot Island State Park; park at the first pull off on the right once you arrive on that island (about 2/3 of a mile from the eastern foot of the bridge) and just work the edges of A1A along the side of the road and dune line.

Another fairly good location for them is on the interior of Huguenot Memorial Park, just behind the playground and horseshoe area. Walk the road that is restricted to vehicular access and look for them starting about fifty yards down that dirt path. Otherwise, eBird results in recent years strongly suggest that their distribution is coastal in NE FL and become very limited even a little bit inland in the county. Therefore, I’d suggest concentrating your search for them to Little Talbot, Huguenot, Helen Floyd Cooper, and Hanna Park.

Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Dark-eyed Junco is a rare but undoubtedly annual winter visitor and transient migrant, with the earliest known record coming from the 1953 Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The complete history of the species is unfortunately cloudy due to lack of consistent record keeping in previous decades, but CBC data suggests the species was regular in the 1960’s and 1970’s, where it appeared on all but one year’s total over an eighteen year span. It became sporadic on the count in the 1980’s, even more sporadic in the 1990’s, and was last recorded on the winter count in 2000. Other known dates include 23-29 October 1985 credited to Pat Anderson (Atherton & Atherton, 1986), 24 November 1996 (Wamer, 1997), 2-3 December 2000 (Anderson, 2001), and recorded 1-13 March 2003 by Peggy Powell (Pranty, 2003).

The only one I’ve ever seen in the County was a bird that inhabited the lawn at Kingsley Plantation in mid-April 2006. Roger Clark found and reported it; it’s particularly memorable to me because that was the first time Marie and I met Roger in person while chasing it. I didn’t know then that would lead to thousands of hours in the field birding together or such strong lifetime friendship.

A good percentage of the Juncos reported here historically have been visiting residential feeders. Outside of that, good areas to look for them in winter would include the picnic grounds at Little Talbot Island State Park, Hanna Park, and places like Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve, or Eastport Wastelands. In spring migration, Reddie Point Preserve or Blue Cypress Park would be as good a place as any to be fortunate enough to see one. In any case, there are not regular and should not necessarily be expected in any year.

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