Seasonal rarities at Huguenot (and elsewhere!)

It’s hard to believe I haven’t written anything since October out here; I knew I’d be distracted through December finishing up school but honestly intended to get back into it with the new year. The good news is that school is done (forever) and I’m starting to get motivated to get some new material out here in between other writing I’m doing for the Florida Field Naturalist (shameless plug, if you aren’t a member of the Florida Ornithological Society, join).

I’ve been enjoying being able to get out in the field again and along with getting some nice sparrows this winter, we’ve had some really nice seasonal rarities out there.

Last year, most everyone missed Red-throated Loons in Duval County but this year I’ve already seen two – Dave Foster spotted one in the lagoon while we were at Huguenot on the morning of 20 January; that bird was in the lagoon and wasn’t relocated after that morning. Then on 11 February I noticed a black and white head in the river behind the nature center and casually ID’d it as a Horned Grebe and immediately called Lesley over to come see it. We got the scopes out and couldn’t find a Grebe but did catch up with a struggling Red-throated Loon (at that point the outgoing tide had already taken it several hundred yards east). While the loon’s condition provided great photo opportunities, it clearly wasn’t doing well and I tried several times to carry it back into the river since it kept getting washed up.

Red-throated Loon, Huguenot Memorial Park in Jacksonville, FL

I called Jeff and by the time he arrived the loon had already perished. I believe he collected it to hand-off to Dave, who will in turn deliver to the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

This has also been a good stretch for seeing Purple Sandpipers at Huguenot. This is a species that is hard to rely on seeing every winter, but this year I’ve already seen them 6 times since I first recorded them on 20 January. There is at least a pair of them, and they are primarily hanging out on the sand between the jetties and the river (not on the jetty rocks); I’ve even found the pair on the northwest side of the park roosting with the masses of Dunlin and Plovers.

Purple Sandpiper, Huguenot Memorial Park (18 Feb 2018)

You won’t always get a view of this species from this angle or clarity in northeast Florida, so I’ve included a couple other shots to help someone pick them out of a crowd. In the image below, you can see the rough comparison in terms of size with the Dunlin on the right.

Purple Sandpiper (left) with Dunlin (right)

You can see that the Purple is a little larger, rounder, and much darker. When roosting in a huge flock of Dunlin, the darkness of the Purple really stands out in the crowd. Speaking of crowds, the images below will hopefully provide some help when looking for a Purple in the midst of a group of Ruddy Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper among Ruddy Turnstones (20 Jan 2018)

In this image, you can see the Purple out front – the “smudgy” chest and difference in leg color certainly stand out, but you can also see how very similar they are in size and coloration of the top / back of the bird. In a tighter group, the Purple becomes much more difficult to detect.

Purple Sandpiper with Ruddys

In the image above, you can see how a more casual scan of shorebirds along the river might not result in finding a Purple Sandpiper, but scan again  – this time looking at the legs and not the whole bird. The shorter appearance and distinctly less orange legs of the bird 5th from the right now pop out.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a spectacular bird found by Lesley on 27 January 2018 at a retention pond next to Wal-Mart in Arlington – Long-tailed Duck. I have no idea why Lesley was birding at Wal-Mart, but she deserves all the credit in the world on looking at places no one else does and picking this bird out on a windy, rainy afternoon.

Long-tailed Duck, Jacksonville, FL (27 January 2018)

Lesley’s bird was the first of the species in Duval County since 2002 and was a “county lifer” for me – number 307 and the first new county bird for me in almost two years (it gets really tough after 300 here!). As for the disposition of the bird, I last recorded it on 3 February and subsequent personal visits have turned up empty in all the surrounding ponds.

“But Kevin, aren’t you forgetting a couple of rarities?” Yes! How can I forget – on 3 February I started my day at Huguenot with Marie and we found an Iceland Gull (a real one, not an all white Laughing Gull!) in the most horrible light you can imagine.

Iceland Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

As I was scanning the rest of the flock, I saw another large white gull – a Glaucous! I can’t recall exactly, but I think I’ve only see both Iceland and Glaucous in Duval County on the same day once before; it’s truly an exceptional occurrence here.

Glaucous Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

So there you have it: Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Iceland Gull, and Glaucous Gull. This is why I love spending a huge chunk of my birding time at Huguenot and being patient. When every day isn’t a frantic big day tick-fest you can often find some truly special birds.

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