Gnatcatchers and Kinglets

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are a year round resident and breeding species in Duval County, with the earliest breeding record from 3 April 1931 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). They are relatively easy to find in any of the birding hotspots or local parks, so you shouldn’t have much trouble locating them. They are abundant at places like Reddie Point Preserve, Fort George Island, Sheffield Park, Pumpkin HIll, Cedar Point Preserve, or Theodore Roosevelt Area. In March, a good location to observe them setting up breeding territories is at Julington Durbin Creek Preserve or any other park with extensive pine woods. In 1928, Grimes noted “the pine is the tree most commonly chosen for the nest site” and noted six nests in pines on 8 April 1925 (Howell, 1932, p. 368).

Golden-crowned Kinglet Regulus satrapa
Golden-crowned Kinglets are a little more common just to the west of Jacksonville in Clay and Baker counties, but they still shouldn’t be expected in any season. When they are observed in Duval County, it is in the winter season and typically associated with a “mini” irruption of the species. In 1988-1989 Peggy Powell noted it was a “good winter” for them, but no further details are available (Ogden, 1989).

The most recent such event was in the winter of 2006-2007, where they could be found relatively easily at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island and along the treeline at the entrance to Cedar Point. Remarkably, they are one of the county’s oldest recorded species, as Maynard collected a pair in December 1868 (Howell, 1932, p. 368). Perhaps the earliest fall arrival was at Kingsley Plantation on 29 October 1995 (and seen again there on 27 November) (Rowan, 1995). On 30 January 2016, Dave Foster and I recorded five in one flock off Starratt Road in north Jacksonville and found three more there two weekends later.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Regulus calendula
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are very abundant in winter, arriving the first week of October and departing by the end of April. Much like the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, they can be found throughout the county in any park or suitable habitat with almost no effort.

Wrens

House Wren Troglodytes aedon
House Wren is a fairly common species from October through April, but can be very difficult to find during the summer months. There are just a handful of reports from May through September each year, and most of those are “heard only”, lacking photographic support. In fall and winter, listen or look for them in the wooded areas of local parks and brush piles; they can also be quite common along the dunes of A1A at Little Talbot Island State Park and in the parking lot at Huguenot Memorial Park. They are quite vocal and their harsh scolding call is a rather familiar sound on most winter morning outings. In summer, I’ve seen them on Black Hammock Island and Sheffield Regional Park where they can be found with some effort to the south of the football fields. There are no known breeding records here for the species.

Winter Wren Troglodytes hiemalis
Winter Wren is a species that should not be expected in northeast Florida on any given day, but should always be considered as a possible rarity. There are a handful of reports over the years but unfortunately no known records (an observation supported by photo, video, or audio). An early report comes from the 1960 Christmas Bird Count, and one was noted as singing by Grimes on 23 March and 1 April 1968 (Stevenson, 1968). West (1996) noted a single wren in south Jacksonville observed between 28 November 1995 and 30 January 1996. More recently, one was observed on 18 November 2000 at Kingsley Plantation, another on 12 November 2004 in Jacksonville’s south side, and most recently at “Sample Swamp” during the 2010 CBC. As rare as the species is today, it nevertheless shows up on CBC data in 1931, 1950, ’51, ’53, ’54, ’57, ’60, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’68, ’69, ’71, ’76, ’77, ’80, ’81, ’84, ’86, ’89, and 2010. I remain heavily skeptical about CBC data and take most of these reports with a grain of salt.

Sedge Wren Cistothorus platensis
Sedge Wren is an uncommon winter resident with no records or reports from May through September. They can be difficult to find even in suitable habitat, and are most often heard rather than seen. The most reliable place to search for them is along the two boardwalks at the southern parking lot of Little Talbot Island State Park. Sheffield Regional Park has good habitat for them adjacent to the first large pond and basketball courts, but that may change if the property is further developed for soccer fields in the future. In western Duval, Fretwell Park, Branan Field Mitigation Area, and Taye Brown Regional Park are all excellent locations for the species. In the eastern and northern part of the county, try the eastern side of Fort George Island along the saltmarsh, Little Talbot Island, and throughout Cedar Point Preserve where there is perhaps the largest expanse of suitable habitat in the area.

Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris
Many local birders don’t realize that Marsh Wren (specifically, the “Worthington’s” Marsh Wren) is a year-round resident and breeding species in Duval County. Their breeding habits have been studied for years and it is suggested that while they do occur south of the St. Johns River in winter, they move to the marshes of the Timucuan Preserve north of the river in summer to breed. I can personally attest that they seem to be an abundant breeding species in those marshes, as each summer I kayak into the finger creeks just north of White Shell Bay off Heckscher Drive, where they can be heard singing and seen perching in the grasses. Stevenson and Anderson (1994) noted one on 24 September 1957 as an early fall report, but did not note why it wasn’t considered one of the abundant breeding population in the area. Good areas to search for them in winter include around the observation tower at Theodore Roosevelt Area, the small fishing pier at Betz Tiger Point Preserve, and the dock behind Jim King Park at Sister’s Creek.

Carolina Wren Thryothorus ludovicianus
Carolina Wren is by far the most abundant wren in the county and can be found in all seasons in appropriate habitat. These inquisitive birds are almost always heard when birding any of the major hotspots and a little pishing should produce them quickly. They are expected on virtually any outing at places like Kingsley Plantation, Fort George Island, Reddie Point Preserve, Little Talbot Island, Sheffield Park, Cedar Point Preserve, or Hanna Park. If you’re looking for near-guaranteed pinpoint locations, you could target the area around the interpretive garden at Kingsley Plantation, the “free” parking lot at the entrance to Huguenot Memorial Park, or around the parking lot trailhead at Reddie Point.

Page updated 21 Jan 2019

Frigatebirds and Sulids

Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens
The earliest report of Magnificent Frigatebird in Duval County comes from around the summer of 1935 when a commercial fisherman claimed to have seen two or three birds during inclement weather around the mouth of the St. Johns River (Grimes, 1943, p. 64). Brookfield (1951) noted four off Neptune Beach on 3 June 1950; the next report followed seventeen years later on 30 May 1967 off Jacksonville Beach (Stevenson, 1967). Jacksonville Beach then produced one on 30 November 1980 (Atherton & Atherton, 1981), and five were in south Jacksonville following Hurricane Elena on 1 September 1985 (Atherton & Atherton, 1986).

There have been a few reports of Magnificent Frigatebird over the last ten years, with about half of them occurring in late August, two on 6 September 2004 (Pranty, 2005) and one as “late” as 15 December 2005 (Anderson, 2006). Most recently, Bob Richter observed one some twenty miles inland at Ortega on 18 February 2016.

This is not a species that you can “target” in Duval County; unfortunately it is one that will just have to find you. I’ve spent many thousands of hours birding along the coast in Jacksonville and have never seen one here just to provide some perspective. I’ve heard speculation that the best time would be after strong west winds, but have no real evidence to back that up.

Masked Booby Sula dactylatra
There is only one reported observation of the extremely rare Masked Booby in county history. The report was of a “well described” bird twelve miles offshore of Mayport observed by Chuck Hunter and Paul Beiderwell (Edscorn, 1980).

Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
Grimes (1943) described Brown Booby as “a casual straggler on our coast”, and noted that Frank M. Chapman reported up to twelve at the mouth of the St. Johns River on 11 March 1907. Almost seventy years passed before the next report on 7 September 1975 offshore of Mayport (Edscorn, 1976). Edscorn (1980) then noted two more reported six miles offshore on 27 June 1980, along with the county’s only report of Masked Booby. There was then a twenty-six year gap in reports until several sightings in 2006-2008, leading to speculation that this species was extremely rare here.

I believe Brown Booby is more regular in Duval County than we once considered, but they hang out on the east end of the jetties and rarely come further up the river. This makes seeing them very difficult unless you get out on a boat. There have been a few “up river” sightings since 2005, with one coming from Clapboard Creek in May 2008 (R. Clark) and another unconfirmed sighting from as far up river as Blue Cypress park.
I’ve had the good fortune to see one from Huguenot Memorial Park on two occasions, but my best luck has been from my boat where I’ve seen as many as three sitting together on the jetties in July.
Three Brown Boobies. July 4 2012. Mayport Jetties. Jacksonville, FL.
I always scope up and down both sides of the jetties when birding Huguenot just in case you can pick out a distant silhouette. More often than not, weather conditions and heat signatures will prohibit seeing birds at that distance, but I have been able to pick one out using this method on a clear day. They are quite obviously different in size, posture, and shape than the usual pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants out there, so you will know it when you see one.
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus
Howell (1932, p. 89) noted a Northern Gannet killed by an airplane near Jacksonville Beach on 12 May 1924. At the time it was the latest (May) occurrence of the species in Florida, until one was recorded in 27 June 1947 in the Dry Tortugas (Sprunt, 1948). Northern Gannets typically arrive in mid-October and are abundant throughout the winter. Some linger through May now, but are gone by June all the way through late September. You can typically see them from any beach in Duval County; great vantage points are Little Talbot Island State Park, Huguenot Memorial Park, Hanna Park, and the Jacksonville Pier.