Rails, Gallinules, and Allies

Yellow Rail Coturnicops noveboracensis
There are only three reports for Yellow Rail in Jacksonville. Grimes (1944, p. 60) noted flushing an individual in the Eastport area in 1930. On 14 September 1932 Grimes observed one for several minutes along a pond in Jacksonville Beach. The last and most recent report is from Mayport on 2 September 1979 (Atherton & Atherton, 1980).

Black Rail Laterallus jamaicensis
There are very few reports of this secretive species in the county, none of which have ever been recorded with audio, video, or photographic evidence. The earliest report comes from the Christmas Bird Count on 29 December 1963 (Cruickshank, 1964). The 1973 CBC produced another report, and there are two reports from Fort George Island on the 26 December 2009 CBC. The only other report is from the marshes at the Little Talbot Island State Park campground – also in 2009 (March).

Clapper Rail Rallus crepitans
Clapper Rail is the most common and expected rail species in Duval County. They can often be heard in any of the coastal marshes; look for them from the small piers at Betz-Tiger Point, Sisters Creek Marina, and in the marshes behind Alimacani Boat Ramp off A1A. They can also be seen from the observation tower at Theodore Roosevelt area and behind Kingsley Plantation along the sand bars in the Fort George River. Low tide is best for seeing them, and they can be located in any season.

King Rail Rallus elegans
King Rail historically bred in Duval County in the Eastport area, and Sam Grimes documented them very well in the 1930’s – even photographed them on the nest. Grimes (1944) lamented the decline in numbers due to loss of habitat, and that is certainly true some 70 years later in 2016. He noted one nest at the mouth of the Trout River among the shallow marshes; in 2014 I found a King Rail calling in the same general location. They were a popular species on the annual CBCs for decades, including appearances on the count in 1949, 1950, 1953, 1956, 1959-63, and on the majority of counts from 1970-1982; they have not been reported on a CBC since ’82.

King Rails are now a very difficult species to find and identify in the county, and thus there are very few modern reports. Clark found one along the 301 corridor many years ago in the swampy bottomlands, where there is currently still suitable habitat but is rapidly diminishing. As mentioned, in 2014 I discovered an accessible area off Heckscher Drive where I heard one calling for over 30 minutes in late spring. Due to the sensitivity of the habitat and the species’ tenuous hold in the county, I am reluctant to provide details on the location for fear of constant playback and harassment. In winter and early spring 2015, Marie and I recorded video of one under the boardwalk at Ringhaver Park; a bird previously reported by Carly Wainwright. Recent reports of the species from the salt marsh at Betz-Tiger Point are unaccepted.

Virginia Rail Rallus limicola
Virginia Rail is a winter resident in Duval County but is very rarely reported. I believe they’re fairly common but not much sought after, so there are very few records. Good places to check for them are the marshes around Betz-Tiger Point, Pumpkin Hill, Black Hammock Island, and even Theodore Roosevelt area.

Grimes noted a few specimens collected in the 1920’s, including one killed by a cat in the marshes around the Trout River. The earliest specifically dated observation I have been able to find is 28 November 1930 (Grimes, 1944).

Sora Porzana carolina
Sora is a winter species in Duval County and is reported about once per year. Grimes (1944) noted their arrival and departure to be around 5 August to 8 May, which very much still roughly holds true today. A very old and notable winter record is of a specimen collected on 3 January 1878 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Today they are not abundant and are very difficult to find. I would not say there is a particularly reliable location for them, so just try in suitable habitat. Any of the small fresh water ponds with abundant cattails and vegetation are as good a place as any to seek them. In recent years, such habitat has been quite productive along New World Avenue near Waterworks Street, but the area is under rapid development in 2016 – these areas may be gone in the near future.

Purple Gallinule Porphyrio martinicus
Like King Rail, Grimes documented breeding Purple Gallinules in the Eastport area throughout the 1930’s, and like the King Rail he also lamented the loss of their breeding habitat due to their breeding ponds being drained or filled in (Grimes, 1944). He also noted they were almost strictly limited to the eastern part of the county and did not occur west of the river. By 1940, he was only able to find one nest in a pond that a decade earlier had close to a dozen pairs in a “colony”.

Purple Gallinules were still relatively easy to find in the 1980’s, but since then there are almost no reports of this species in the county. In the early ’80’s they could still be found around Lake Narcissus, which is now surrounded completely by homes in the Hidden Hills subdivision. Obviously, they’ve been extirpated from that area.

I long believed there was a remaining possibility that they still occur here, and if so most likely at Turner Pond in the Imeson area. Indeed, in 2011 one was reported in a pond at the nearby Jacksonville Zoo for a single summer day, suggesting they may still exist at Turner Pond less than half a mile away. On 4 October 2015, JC Knoll recorded a single Purple Gallinule at the main pond of Westside Industrial Park, where I was able to view it briefly later that afternoon. It was again recorded on the 5th by David Foster, but despite significant efforts by many birders over the next week it was not relocated.

Unfortunately, Turner Pond is restricted access and completely overgrown so there is no way to scope any of the water or edges there. In addition to being vigilant at Westside Industrial Park, other locations still worth checking would be any ponds around the 9B corridor to Bayard or places like Seaton Creek Preserve or the Ethel and Lannie Road areas.

On 29 May 2017 I startled one in Eastport Wastelands in the precise hardwood swamp I began searching for them based on Grimes’ documentation. I was able to photograph it and watch it for several minutes before it disappeared. Despite many follow-up visits throughout the summer I was unable to ever relocate one there.

Common Gallinule Gallinula galeata 
Common Gallinules can be found year-round in Duval County, but are not abundant or common. Reliable locations are M&M Dairy, the ponds at Imeson Center, Blue Cypress Park, the Jacksonville Equestrian Center, and Westside Industrial Park. If you’re visiting the Jacksonville Zoo they also breed there in the pond beneath the Wood Stork colony.

American Coot Fulica americana
American Coot is an abundant winter resident and can be found throughout the county. Check retention ponds and along the St. Johns River for them. An enormous collection of Coots can be found at the pond under the interchange of I-95 and I-295 at the southern part of the county. Coots are scarce breeders in summer months, when they were first recorded as a breeding species 16-17 August 1979 (Ogden, 1979). As recently as summer 2015 I was able to confirm a breeding pair with young in a pond along the intersection of I-295 (beltway) and JTB.

Seaton Creek Preserve

Seaton Creek Historic Preserve
2145 Arnold Road
Parking: Free; there is no admission fee for this park. The parking lot is an ample dirt lot with no designated spaces and no concrete pads for wheelchair access.

Trails: Primitive, mostly well cut and maintained. Some have high grasses and numerous spider webs crossing the path. Trails are marked, but there are no additional maps once you leave the parking lot. Wear comfortable walking/hiking shoes, preferably water resistant especially if you’re visiting in the morning when the grasses are still moist from dew.

Facilities: None. There are no restrooms, no port-o-let, and no water fountains or sources. There is a trail map posted at the kiosk at the parking lot (no paper copies). There are a few benches throughout the trails. I had decent 3G internet access on my phone, using the Sprint network despite the remoteness of this park.

The Dailey Birder’s Tips: If you wear eyeglasses, bring them in addition to your sunglasses. The trails take you into some dense woods where you’ll want your regular eyeglasses. Also pack some water and jerked beef or a Lil’Chub for a snack – it’s easy to spend several hours hiking these trails. There are no open vistas to scan, so there is no need to carry a scope. The marsh overlook is over a 2 mile hike each way, so think carefully about what equipment and weight you want to carry.

Target Species: Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireo all breed on property. It’s worth searching for Kentucky Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Northern Bobwhite, American Woodcock, and Virginia Rail in appropriate season(s). In winter, search for American Kestrel, Chipping, Field, Swamp, Song, Savannah, White-crowned, and even Fox Sparrow.

Seaton Creek Historic Preserve is an 840 acre park that opened on 3 March 2014 in northern Duval County. Marie and I first visited the park on 26 July 2014 to check specifically for Acadian Flycatchers. This is the area of the county that has been historically good for them, and I believe it’s in the general area that Sam Grimes used to find nesting Swainson’s Warblers. I’ll provide some details below, but to cut to the chase – we got our target bird on our first visit, surely a good omen!

There are over 5 miles of trails, including the “Long Cut” trail, “Houston Creek Trail”, “Legacy Loop”, and several miles of service roads. The Legacy Loop is marked red on the map, and is at the north end of the Houston Creek trail. The trails are fairly primitive in most areas and it’s easy to get off the beaten path; look for the painted trees to stay on the trails, they’ve done an excellent job marking them on both sides of a tree every 50 yards or so.

Birding Strategy:
Bird the parking lot for owls and nightjars at dawn and dusk. I haven’t tried it yet, but this should be an excellent location for Eastern Whip-poor-will in March. Take the trail head from the parking lot and you’ll soon be in palmetto scrub and pine forest reminiscent of Spanish Pond or Pumpkin Hill (but less sandy). This short section of the trail should be excellent for Gray Catbirds and sparrows in winter; in our summer visit we were mobbed by Tufted Titmouse, White-eyed Vireos and Eastern Towhee. I also think this spot could yield a Dark-eyed Junco in winter or early spring.

When you exit that short stretch, the trail hooks back up with the service road for a short distance making for easy walking; this is an excellent spot to hear and see pairs of Summer Tanagers in spring and summer. This area starts to be a little more deciduous with some low wetlands on each side of the road. You’ll cross a little creek that could be good for waterthrushes; all we found in our July visit was a 5-6 foot Cottonmouth swimming in the water and a large group of honey bees on the outside of one of the dead trees. Keep walking and at 0.45 miles in you’ll see a wooden bench where the area directly behind it looks perfect for winter sparrows, kestrel, and who knows – perhaps a western flycatcher! Make your way through that and pick up the Houston Creek trail again, or you can veer right and follow the service road that will take you to the other end of Houston Creek trail.

The Houston Creek trail from here quickly gets pretty primitive, so remember it is marked with yellow paint and follow the path, which is often overgrown. It’s flat and you shouldn’t turn any ankles, but it is rife with spider webs. After a while, you’ll come to my favorite part of the park, and what may become one of my favorite spots in Duval County. This trail leads you through high canopy, deciduous forest with low bottomlands full of sweet gum, oak, and hickory trees, and wet undergrowth. We started remarking that it’s great habitat for Acadians, ground warblers, and cuckoos when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo started calling on queue. The trail turns pretty abruptly at one point where there is an old camouflaged tree house / deer stand; continue on about 100 yards and you’ll cross an area of very wet, dark mud – this area is very open with lots of leaf litter – perfect for the ground warblers and we heard the first of three Acadians calling at this point. About 100-200 yards further up the trail, we recorded two more Acadians calling.

The trail opens up and intersects with the service road again, and if you turn left (north) you’ll soon be crossing along Houston Creek. We had a female Wood Duck here, and the area looks absolutely perfect for breeding Prothonotary and Hooded Warblers, and possibly – just possibly – Swainson’s Warbler. There is water on both sides of the road and the woods consist of oaks and old cypress trees, and there is an abundance of aquatic vegetation in the seemingly unpolluted waters.

About 100 yards up the service road, you’ll see Houston Creek Trail again on the right and that will take you through more pine forest and eventually back into coastal oak and sweet gum hammocks, where you’ll have a chance to scan absolutely pristine marsh overlooks and listen for Virginia Rails in winter. These marshes appear almost totally undisturbed and are what I imagine “old Florida” looked like hundreds of years ago.

Legacy Loop Trail: I haven’t hiked this trail yet, but it looks like a managed young pine forest and would be a lot of hiking for not much payoff in birding habitat. I’ll probably hike it at some point, but don’t expect much in terms of birds.

Service Road: If you follow the service road all the way back from Houston Creek, you’ll go through mixed pine forest where Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, and Carolina Chickadee are abundant. In winter, this looks like excellent habitat to find a rare-in-county Red-breasted Nuthatch or Golden-crowned Kinglet.

Another strategy is to bird the service road all the way to the back of the property early in the morning, avoiding the Houston Creek trail at the beginning. This allows for comfortable walking in the more open areas before the sun is really up, and will allow you to use the more dense areas of Houston Creek as shade on the hike back. If you take this approach, it’s .45 miles to the first bench from the parking lot; just beyond the bench on the right is the 90 degree turn on the service road. This corner is active and worth birding for a bit; in a recent late July visit we had an (early) American Redstart, several Northern Parulas, Summer Tanagers, and other small land birds. Follow the service road and at 1.15 miles into your hike you should start hearing Brown-headed Nuthatches. At 1.78 miles, there will be another bench for a quick rest and at 2 miles you’ll come to the aforementioned Houston Creek trail leading to the marshy overlooks.

Summary of the Summer Season – 2014

Summary of the Summer Season
1 Jun – 31 July, 2014
Baker, Clay, Duval, Flagler, Nassau, Putnam & St. Johns Counties

Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.” A county designation (in italics) accompanies the first-time listing of each site in this report.

The season’s most significant waterfowl sighting was six Fulvous Whistling-Ducks near M&M Dairy (Duval) at Autumn Glen subdivision off New Berlin Road on 21 June. These were undoubtedly the same birds observed last season at M&M, and a remarkable observation in NE Florida in any year.

Four Black Scoters could be found at Huguenot Memorial Park (Duval) from 1 June through 5 July, and three remained in Salt Run (St. Johns) from 5-15 June. This is the second consecutive summer the species lingered into the summer months in Northeast Florida.

Red-breasted Mergansers are uncommon in summer, and there were just two reports this summer: one from Six Mile Landing (St. Johns) on 5 June and another off Heckscher Drive (Duval) on 23 June.

A Common Loon was reported in Salt Run from 29 June through 12 July.

On 2 June, single Cory’s Shearwaters were reported from St. Augustine (St. Johns) and from Huguenot Memorial Park during coastal seawatches. Two Great Shearwaters were also reported during that same seawatch in St. Augustine, along with three Wilson’s and two Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.

Least Bittern is a breeding species in NE FL but can be difficult to find. The most reliable location continues to be Six Mile Landing where they were reported 5-18 June. A single observation in Jacksonville came from Heckscher Drive on 22 June.

On 19 July, approximately 225 Roseate Spoonbills were video recorded roosting in the Timucaun Preserve (Duval) , marking perhaps the single greatest congregation of the species ever recorded in NE Florida.

Glossy Ibis continue to be more regular in Duval and Nassau counties than in years previous. Two were reported from Amelia Island SP (Nassau) on 22 July, and a small flock was regular throughout the season at M&M Dairy and nearby Sheffield Regional Park.

King Rail observations included one from Heckscher Drive 22 June and another from the GTM NERR (St. Johns) on 11 June. A very rare in the region Purple Gallinule was reported from Six Mile Landing (St. Johns) from 15-20 June.

Limpkins continued their strong foothold in Jacksonville’s westside location, with 16 individuals (including six chicks) reported throughout the summer season.

Notable shorebird observations start with another consecutive of year of successful American Oystercatcher nesting at Huguenot Memorial Park. Whimbrel were consistent at Huguenot throughout the season, but were much less frequent in St. Johns County, with just a handful of observations around the GTM NERR. Two very early White-rumped Sandpipers were reported from Fort Clinch State Park (Nassau) on 9 June.

A single lingering Bonaparte’s Gull was recorded at the GTM NERR dam on 7 June. The Iceland Gull at Huguenot Memorial Park stayed from the spring season throughout the summer season and was easily located along the interior mud flats on most visits. A single Arctic Tern was reported from St. Augustine on 2 June, and Black Terns arrived at the local beaches around 19 July.

Kingfishers are very scarce in late spring and summer; observations in St. Johns and Flagler County started increasing 15 July.

Hairy Woodpecker was recorded on several occasions deep in Faver-Dykes State Park (St. Johns) from 20-26 June.

An Eastern Wood-Pewee was observed on the trails of the GTM NERR on 26 June. Acadian Flycatchers cooperated at Seaton Creek Historic Preserve the last week of July, where they were recorded on the 26th and 27th.

This season was also highlighted by two distinctly different Scissor-tailed Flycatchers; one at the GTM NERR (8-11 June) and an adult male located at M&M Dairy on 5-6 July. The Duval County bird was the first observation in the county since 1997.

A Florida Scrub-Jay was recorded at Washington Oaks Gardens SP (Flagler) from 8-24 June.

On 5 July, an early Cliff Swallow was recorded along Route 100 in Flagler County.

A pair of American Robins successfully fledged young near the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, and were recorded from 23-28 June. The species was also documented nesting again this summer in Hyde Grove (Duval).

Louisiana Waterthrushes arrived in early July and were easily found on the roads of Fort George Island (Duval) 12-13 July, where a high count of six was recorded this year. An early Northern Waterthrush was observed at Cedar Point Preserve (Duval) on 13 July. Prairie Warblers were recorded and suspected breeding in Faver-Dykes SP (5 June). Hooded Warblers could still be found in July at Seaton Creek.