Category Archives: #Duval RBA

Stilt Sandpiper and 80+ in Dayson Basin!

I’ve written a few times about “Getting to 70“, and today I tallied over 70 species on a single checklist at a single location in Duval County for the TENTH time. Not only did we (a group of 4 of us) get to 70 – we accomplished something that has only been done in northeast Florida history one other time – break the 80 mark!! (Diane Reed and I did that together on 15 May 2016 at Spoonbill Pond).

It rained (rather heavily) overnight and was spitting rain as we arrived at the Palms Fish Camp at 0715 to begin the bird survey at 0730. The rain quickly subsided as we made our first of many stops along the berm.

Dayson Basin. Little Marsh Island. Jacksonville FL
Dayson Basin. 5 Apr 2019

This site is restricted access and is not open to the public, so I won’t go into a lot of detail, but in summary we had 8 species of waterfowl and 15 species of shorebird, including the county’s first verifiable Stilt Sandpiper in 2019.

Stilt Sandpiper. Dayson Basin. Jacksonville, Florida. 5 Apr 2019

We also had three American Avocets, including one of the extremely rare “Allaire” sub-species (Allaire’s Avocet).

American Avocets. Dayson Basin. 5 April 2019. Jacksonville, Florida

We had three “heard only” species that were particularly notable: Sora (4), American Woodcock (!), and two Sedge Wrens just going nuts.

Since I know it’s killing you, here are the ten times I’ve broken 70 on a single visit in Duval County:

25 Mar 2017 – Spoonbill Pond (74)

27 Nov 2016 – Spoonbill Pond (70)

26 Nov 2016 – Eastport Wastelands (76)

15 May 2016 – Spoonbill Pond (84)

28 Feb 2016 – Ribault Monument (70)

12 Dec 2015 – Spoonbill Pond (70)

17 Oct 2015 – Reddie Point (71)

7 Apr 2017 – Dayson Basin (71)

18 Mar 2018 – Spoonbill Pond (71)

5 Apr 2019 – Dayson Basin (80)

Upland Sandpiper(!) M&M Dairy.

This morning I found my fourth Upland Sandpiper in Duval County at M&M Dairy, which is the same location I’ve found 2 of the previous 3 (26 Mar 2013 and 8 Sep 2015). The species is rarely reported in NE FL and we are losing accessible habitat to even search for them. This is the first county report or record since 2015.

Upland Sandpiper. Jacksonville, FL (Duval County) 31 Mar 2019.

Before I get to the rest of the story, I wanted to share what NOT to do at M&M Dairy…parking in the street. I‘ve written before about how to bird this location and it doesn’t include parking on the curb of a busy road and blocking the bike lane completely. This kind of lazy, inconsiderate behavior causes problems for the rest of us and is so unnecessary, as there is an abundance of free parking available here.

How NOT to bird M&M Dairy. “Look, over there is a Great Egret. What, I just walked past an Upland Sandpiper?”

The funny part of this encounter is that not only did these two birders walk within 30 yards of the Upland and not see it, they pulled a U-turn as I was shooting the Upland from this same vantage point rather than ask me what I was looking at. To paraphrase Lennon, “Instant Kharma’s gonna get ya”.

As I mentioned, this is the third Upland I’ve found at this property over the years, and the first I’ve seen in Florida since 2015. The good news is that the field has been mowed recently, allowing me to see the bird. The bad news is they recently mowed it, likely to sell space for warehouses.

Recently mowed M&M Dairy.

Below is a picture of what the Upland might look like from a distance, using your binoculars. The field is very uneven and a foraging bird can disappear quite quickly. It takes patience and diligence to see and then to keep up with it.

Upland Sandpiper. M&M Dairy. Jacksonville, Florida.

I immediately called my buddy Dave Foster and he was able to make it to the location within ten minutes. What’s pretty cool is this is the same circumstance I first met Dave on March 27, 2013…looking at an Upland Sandpiper at M&M Dairy!

Here’s a couple more shots of the bird; in the one immediately below, the subject is checking out a kettle of vultures circling overhead.

Upland Sandpiper. M&M Dairy. Jacksonville, FL

And one more…look at that beautiful, scalloped back!

Upland Sandpiper. M&M Dairy. Jacksonville, FL.

In addition to the sandpiper, I saw two Bald Eagles, including one adult and this immature.

I also saw a number of Swamp Sparrows,

many Killdeer,

and a few chittering House Wrens.

So there you have it.

Rusty Blackbirds. M&M Dairy.

M&M Dairy has been an interesting place to bird again this winter, so I’ve spent a bit of time out there every weekend or so. I wrote about it recently, but some interesting birds I’ve found there since December include Western Kingbird(s) and a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows. On January 20th I headed back out there on a very windy and chilly morning and tallied a nice list of around 36 species.

The highlight for this visit was a check of the swampy area at Port Jacksonville Parkway and New Berlin Road. The swamp seems to be dying, and I haven’t seen Wood Duck in there for a long time now, but I did tally at least three Rusty Blackbirds. Roger and I first “discovered” this spot for Rusties about twelve years ago and it’s been fairly reliable each winter since then.

Red-bellied Woodpecker. M&M Dairy
Red-bellied Woodpecker. 20 Jan 2019. M&M Dairy.

What is concerning is the huge swath of forest that has been cleared behind this swamp, where a developer is putting in a neighborhood of hundreds upon hundreds of homes…the development will span New Berlin and Alta Roads and the deforestation there will certainly impact the habitat these blackbirds and many other species have relied upon.

As always, I’m compelled to ask birders to consider not using playback to call the Rusty Blackbirds in…with patience, it is really not necessary as the birds will come into easy view.

Fox Sparrow! Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

I was struggling Saturday night (the 12th of January) in deciding where I wanted to go birding the next morning. It’s so hard to not bird Huguenot in the winter months but I felt really in the mood for going on a prolonged walk in the woods. I decided on Seaton Creek Historic Preserve off Pecan Park Road, thinking I could turn up a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, or something somewhat interesting. (see my 2014 article on this location).

Seaton Creek Historic Preserve. Jacksonville,  FL.
Marsh overlook, Houston Creek Trail intersection. Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

I got to Seaton just before 8AM on Sunday, January 13th, and headed down the Main Trail, staying “right” as the trail meandered past several other intersections. I walked all the way to the back corner, where I was treated to the picturesque scene in the photo above. From that point, you can pick the Houston Creek Trail back up, and so that’s what I did – knowing it’d take me into a hardwood hammock and out of the pines.

I passed the “Acadian spot” and finally saw a flurry of activity ahead of me in the palmettos. It’d been a slow day to that point and I was eager to find my first feeding flock of the morning. I got my bins on the commotion, and couldn’t believe what I was looking at! A Fox Sparrow!!

Fox Sparrow. Seaton Creek Historic Preserve. Jacksonville, FL 13 Jan 2019.

The bird above is the first one I saw in the bins, and it sat on that branch long enough for me to take a couple shots, then realize my settings were still for bright sun on the open trails. I quickly fiddled with the ISO and shutter and managed at least the shot above. Notice the deep, bold reddish streaking on the breast of this bird, as it differentiates it from the second bird below.

Fox Sparrow. Seaton Creek. Jacksonville, FL. 13 Jan 2019

As that bird moved further away, a second Fox Sparrow popped up and sat on that branch for five minutes or more. They’re not depicted here, but the bird turned around twice, allowing me to get nice shots of the back / dorsal view and all the relevant field marks. 🙂 As this bird sat there, the first bird sat a little further back and did the “smack” calls that can be found on the Sibley app.

Fox Sparrow habitat. Houston Creek Trail, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

The picture above is the habitat these two birds were in, which is not exactly what I would’ve expected for them.

I’ve been waiting a long time to see this species in Duval County, and have purposefully searched for them each winter in the cypress domes of Pumpkin Hill, Cedar Creek, and other brushy habitat on the westside. Based on all the research I’ve done for Duval, there are a handful of scattered reports dating back decades, but most are from Christmas Bird Counts…which I find of highly questionable authenticity. For example, one year there were 25(!) Fox Sparrows on one CBC. There are two or three that I actually have faith in based on the observers (Clark, Rowan, and Hintermister), the most recent of which comes from 2002.

My hot streak continues!

Thus far in January…

The Snow Goose that Marie and I found the last week of December attracted quite a bit of attention the first week of January, and I hate to think how much gas was consumed by everyone driving to the northside of Jacksonville for no other reason than to tick a year bird. Regardless, that bird lingered through at least the first week of the month, as did other notable rarities like the Smooth-billed Ani at Little Talbot Island State Park (present since December 3rd), the Red-necked Grebe (present since January 1st), and the Purple Sandpipers at Huguenot (present since early December).

The Western Kingbirds I found around Christmas stayed at M&M Dairy, but other than that no terribly unusual birds have been recorded yet in January. Roseate Spoonbills are pretty uncommon in winter and can be hard to find, but there have been a small group hanging out on the pond in my neighborhood.

This morning I birded Huguenot Memorial Park for several hours and saw pretty much everything you’d expect there this time of year except a Piping Plover or the Oystercatchers. They’re around, but I just missed them. The Purple Sandpiper(s) were not present at 8AM (the tide was out), but when I checked the area around the jetties around 11AM, I found one among the Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

While I was looking at the Red-necked Grebe, I met Tom R. and had a pleasant conversation. We’ve known of each other through email and such over the years, but had never met in person. Nice to make the connection.

Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019

I drove up the beach and around the north end of the park, and would definitely recommend four wheel drive out there – the sand is soft and powdery. Groups of shorebirds were roosting on the mudflat, including a handful of Wilson’s Plovers. I snapped this Black-bellied Plover as it cruised by the truck.

Black-bellied Plover. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

On the way back in, I parked at the nature center and walked up family beach, where I met another pair of familiar names – Janet and Gary L. from Orlando. Again, nice to make the personal connection and put faces to names. The grebe was showing pretty well at that point.

Ring-billed Gull. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

The new road construction is progressing pretty well through the park, and they’ve cut the path right through the dunes where it’ll run “behind” the playground. I checked the small patch of remaining scrub there and had a number of birds including two White-crowned Sparrows, Gray Catbirds, Swamp and Song Sparrows, and Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This new path for the road may actually open up a couple new birding options at Huguenot, as it will give us a chance to get closer to the interior coastal scrub.

Red-necked Grebe at Huguenot Memorial Park

Today I was able to get very good looks at a Red-necked Grebe at Huguenot Memorial Park. The bird was often difficult to see due to a combination of wind, chop, and distance, and it wouldn’t sit still for very long most of the time. It did come in close enough to provide great scope views and allowed for a short video grab.

Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. Jacksonville, FL. 5 Jan 2019.
Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. 5 Jan 2019.

This bird is the first Duval County record of the species, and (pending FOSRC acceptance), would be the first in Florida since Pranty’s Hudson Beach Park bird on 13 November 2016. It would be the fifth accepted state record (along with three more accepted sight-only reports). (Kratter, 2018).

It’s another new county bird, putting me at 312 in Duval.

Reference:

Kratter, A. (2018). Twenty-seventh report of the Florida ornithological society records committee: 2016-2017. Florida Field Naturalist, 46(4): 96-117.

Still on a roll…Ash-throated Flycatcher and Snow Goose!

This is the first year in many many years that I decided not to participate in the local Christmas Bird Count (for a number of reasons), and it paid dividends. Marie and I decided to go bird at Little Talbot Island State Park to look for the recently reported Lark Sparrows (we didn’t find one). We walked around for about an hour and a half and came right up on a large flycatcher along the road – we were almost on top of it before we even saw it. I recognized it as an Ash-throated Flycatcher immediately (I’ve seen only one in Florida, but really countless ones in the west over the last 10 years).

Ash-throated Flycatcher. Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

I managed a few poor, backlit shots before it took off across the dunes and disappeared for 40 minutes. I patiently waited and it came right back out in front of me for another 5 minute look before flying off again. I waited around for another 45 minutes and birded the area, but it never reappeared. This is a pretty significant find for Duval County, and is roughly only the 5th one ever reported in the county. It was #311 for me in Duval.

Ash-throated Flycatcher (dorsal view). Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

Marie and I headed to lunch and to run some errands, and swung behind the old Gander Mountain store to check the ponds. We saw a lone white morph SNOW GOOSE mixed in with the Canada Geese. I got out of the truck to grab the camera, and I’m not sure if was my movement or something else, but the whole flock spooked and flew off over the treetops, never to be seen again. This is only the 3rd Snow Goose observation in 2018, and I was lucky enough to find two of those…and one each Blue and White!

Ash-throated Flycatcher. Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

I’ve had a pretty good run lately – to recap the last couple months, I’ve found an Ash-throated Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, a Lapland Longspur, a Snow Bunting, two Snow Geese, three Purple Sandpipers, a White-winged Scoter, a Western Kingbird, and two Grasshopper Sparrows…not to mention seeing the Smooth-billed Ani that someone else found. I guess I can’t complain!

Not dead yet! (Grasshopper Sparrow at M&M Dairy)

Despite all the construction and changing landscape at M&M Dairy, the place isn’t dead yet. After Roger and I tallied just over 50 species there a couple days ago (including a very uncommon/rare Western Kingbird), I headed back over there this morning.

Yellow-rumped Warbler. M&M Dairy. 25 December 2018.

The back part of the “new” area to bird was full of fairly common winter species like the Yellow-rumped Warbler pictured above, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet pictured below. (Missing was the American Pipit, Painted Buntings, and Western Kingbird).

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 25 Dec 2018.

I got to the big overgrown dirt mountain, and saw dozens of birds fly up out of the vegetation and up to the top. I figured they were a mix of Palm Warblers and Savannah Sparrows, but decided to check them over anyway. I quickly noticed the bold eyering, burnt orange supraloral area, and median crown stripe of a Grasshopper Sparrow! As I scanned right, I saw a second one about five feet away.

Grasshopper Sparrow. 25 Dec 2018. M&M Dairy.

I fired off a few shots, but due to the distance good photos were difficult…even at 500mm. Grasshopper Sparrows are around every winter but can be extremely difficult to find, and I’d say you would miss them 99 times out of 100 when birding in Duval County. Yes, these are the third and fourth I’ve found this year, but to balance that perspective consider that the four I’ve recorded in 2018 are the only ones reported in the entire county this year.

Grasshopper Sparrow. 25 Dec 2018.

It’s hard to imagine adding two new birds to the overall M&M Dairy “patch list” at this point, but that’s precisely what I’ve done in the past week. “Good birding” indeed!

Western Kingbird. Smooth-billed Ani.

This morning Roger was in town and picked me up at 8AM. We decided to head for Sheffield Regional Park over Huguenot Park, and along the way we started to pass by (what is left of) M&M Dairy. After lamenting what was such a great place to bird, we realized the end by the new warehouse was vacant and seemed to be open for access. We parked and decided to bird M&M.

We had a fantastic couple of hours out there, tallying just over 50 species while walking all over the fields for the first time in probably ten years together. (Back “in the day” we could walk all over the pastures with permission, not so much in recent years).

As we turned the first corner of the berm (reminiscent of the “Masters Tract” in St. Johns County), we encountered groups of birds including a “greenie” Painted Bunting, Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, and a Pileated Woodpecker. As we turned the next corner, I saw a largish yellow bird fly off and land ahead of us…Western Kingbird!

Western Kingbird. M&M Dairy.

This particular Kingbird was a little more sketchy than most, so didn’t allow for very good pictures. This same area was hopping though, with an adult male Painted Bunting, Savannah and Chipping Sparrows, and a single American Pipit.

Savannah Sparrow. M&M Dairy

We continued slogging through the fields and ended up by the marshy area where Roger found a single Rusty Blackbird.

Chipping Sparrow. M&M Dairy.

Roger had to jet, so I headed to Little Talbot in search of the Smooth-billed Ani. Shortly after arriving, I met Steve and Liz from North Carolina and struck up a great conversation. They were traveling down through Florida and stopped off to see the Ani, which we found within 5 minutes behind the restroom pavilion at lot 2. The bird was very active, and we watched as it hawked a flying grasshopper in mid air, then landed with it in it’s mouth. After eating it, it seemed to be very content and we watched it for 15-20 minutes at very close distance. It seemed comfortable with us, which is probably because we weren’t calling it via recording and creeping up on us. The light was HARSH, but I managed a few shots that are pretty decent. These are all at 500mm with no crop.

Smooth-billed Ani at Little Talbot Island State Park

On December 3rd an out-of-state birder photographed and reported a Smooth-billed Ani near the first (northermost) parking lot at Little Talbot Island State Park. I was out of town for work and unable to go look for it, but Dave Foster managed to make it out there and relocate the bird. After Dave’s re-confirmation, the Hordes showed up over the next several days, leading to widespread reports of people walking through the dunes, disturbing shrubs and vegetation, and using extensive playback to call the bird up.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island State Park. 9 Dec 2018. (No playback used)

Anyone who knows anything about birding should know that a species like an Ani is a) very much out of range here, b) could consequently be a little disoriented, and c) is a social, gregarious, inquisitive species that is likely to be eager to re-join a family group. Despite that, people constantly used recordings to get the bird to respond…presumably adding to the bird’s stress and anxiety.

Smooth-billed Ani. Check out those eyelashes!

I was finally able to go look for the bird on Saturday, December 8th,  and spent 8 hours walking around the area it had been observed. I covered 20,000 “Fitbit steps” during that 8 hour period canvassing a relatively small area between those 2 parking lots, and never saw or heard a hint of the bird. There were many others there searching also, so I feel like we had excellent coverage…the only reasonable explanation to me is that the bird was present but was perhaps resting after several days of being harassed.

I went back out Sunday morning following a torrential rain storm and found the bird in the exact same patch it had been seen for days. I obviously didn’t use agitation techniques to engage the bird. A quiet and patient approach can often pay dividends. While I’m not a “lister”, I do naturally take interest in my home county totals, and this species is #310 in Duval County.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island SP. 9 Dec 2018.

In terms of historical context, this is actually the third report of the species in Duval County. If I might quote myself from my Species account section of this website (look under Cuckoos): “Sam Grimes reported three birds “studied at close range at Jacksonville Beach” on 29 October 1966, and two (presumably the same birds) were noted again on 5 November 1966 (Stevenson, 1967, p. 24).” So, it is certainly a significant observation and record for Northeast Florida.