Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers provide some of the most challenging and enjoyable birding opportunities in Duval County, and we are extremely fortunate to have many favorable and highly desirable birding destinations to see them. Huguenot Memorial Park is without a doubt the best place to observe these species and to search for the more uncommon or rare species, and you will notice that as a theme throughout this section. However, there are a handful of other places to look for them including 16th Ave South (see Locations), or the north end of Little Talbot Island SP and the Big Bird Island area.
“Storm birding” is always a great time to look for both rare and unusual numbers of these species from land. For instance, following Tropical Storm Jerry in late August 1995, 560 Black Terns and 680 Common Terns were observed at Huguenot (Rowan, 1995), and during Gabrielle on 15 September 2001, R. Clark reported 35 Caspian, 325 Royal, 72 Sandwich, 210 Common, 153 Forster’s, 101 Bridled, 91 Sooty, and 850 Black Terns all from a stationary count at Fort George Inlet (Pranty, 2002).
Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla
Black-legged Kittiwake is a very rare migrant, producing only four known reports in Duval County. The first record is of a bird photographed at Jacksonville Beach by Jay Clark on 10 March 1971 (Stevenson, 1971). On 21 January 1973, J. Hintermister and P. Sykes reported up to fifty adults offshore of Mayport, on a trip organized by the Florida Ornithological Society (note: also reference the Little Gull account below). A decade later, a specimen was collected at Huguenot on 9 January 1983 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). The most recent account is of one reported on the 1980 CBC on 28 December that year.
Sabine’s Gull Xema sabini
There are three known reports of Sabine’s Gull from Duval County, all coming from Huguenot Memorial Park. The first report was from R. Clark on 10-12 June 1995 (Paul & Schnapf, 1995), followed by another on 6 June 1999. Clark recalled doing a mid-summer “big day” with a handful of other birders when they came across this gull sitting on the beach amid hordes of suntan lotion-lathered sunbathers. The gull eventually took off after allowing several minutes of detailed observation (R. Clark, personal communication, 2008). Most recently, Jerry Krummrich reported an immature Sabine’s at Huguenot on 19 October 2003 (Pranty, 2004).
Bonaparte’s Gull Chroicocephalus philadelphia
Bonaparte’s Gulls are annual in winter and early spring in northeast Florida. Grimes (1945, p.19) noted they did not arrive before early November, and that arrival time holds true in 2014; in fact, they are usually found more towards late November or the first week of December. They become uncommon again by April, and if you can find one in late April or early May you’ll likely be treated to seeing them in near-breeding plumage.The best place to view them in Duval County is along the lagoon at Huguenot Memorial Park, where they can be seen feeding with the Red-breasted Mergansers. You can also look for them coastally at places like Little Talbot Island State Park, Hanna Park, or the Jacksonville Beach Pier, and occasionally they can be found along the river from Reddie Point Preserve.
Laughing Gull Leucophaeus atricilla
Laughing Gull is the predominant gull species in Duval County and can be found in all seasons. In the spring and summer, they create quite a spectacle at Huguenot Memorial Park where they provide one of the largest breeding colonies on the east coast of the United States, with individuals numbering close to 10,000.
This is quite a change from 1945, when Grimes (1945, p.17) noted Laughing Gull as a “non-breeding, year-round resident”. As many early county records came from the mouth of the St. Johns river and the Ward’s Bank / Huguenot area, it is impossible to imagine the species nesting there and going undetected. Further, Grimes when on to state “I know of no nesting ground within two hundred miles of Jacksonville”. This continued until at least the summer of 1990, when West (1991) noted two nests at Huguenot where “they are rare nesters”. Certainly those managing the land at Huguenot Memorial Park deserve some credit and a debt of gratitude for making it a hospitable area for the gulls in present day.
In 2013, Rex Rowan observed numbers of Laughing Gulls passing through western Duval County and theorized that based on a direct line of flight from the landfill in Baker County to Huguenot Memorial Park (40 miles in each direction), perhaps the adults of the breeding colony were traveling that distance for food (R. Rowan, personal communication, 2013). On 7 April 2013, I visited Taye Brown Regional Park in Duval County (also conveniently in a direct line between those two aforementioned locations), and counted 1,800 Laughing Gulls from 07:00 to 08:30 – roughly one third of the breeding colony at Huguenot! In addition to this just being a spectacular experience, it could warrant further observation and study by an enthusiastic birder or researcher.
Franklin’s Gull Leucophaeus pipixcan
Franklin’s Gull is a rare but annual species in Duval County, with a handful of reports each year. The earliest report dates to a few Bryan Obst noted off Mayport on 19 November 1977 (Edscorn, 1978). Many years later, two were reported from 23 October – 16 November 2003 (Pranty, 2004).
The best time to see the species is in the month of October; by early November it is still possible to find one but much less likely. The latest seasonal record is from 2 December 2009, while the earliest is 2 October 2014. Huguenot Memorial Park is the best – and easiest – place to search for them, but several records have also come from Big Bird Island and the north end of Little Talbot Island SP. In November 2015, Bob Richter photographed two a remarkable twenty miles up river in Ortega, providing the first known inland county record of the species. When trying for them at Huguenot, I would suggest trying first thing in the morning or within the last 90 minutes prior to dusk in the evening.
The preferred location at Huguenot is at the south side of the jetties along the river where the gulls and terns routinely roost, and if you can coincide the visit while the tide is in, so much the better as it concentrates the birds closer to the beach. Another good place to find them in the evening is among the group of larids strung out along the shore from the base of the jetties north about 3/4 mile past the lifeguard station. This group of birds will also allow for slow driving parallel to the flock from a reasonable distance – while not creating a disturbance for them.
Finding a Franklin’s there still requires patience and a degree of persistence, but it is very possible to see at least one (as as many as 5 or 6) on any evening visit to Huguenot in October. My technique has been to scan the large congregations of birds along the river by the jetties, paying particular attention to the fringes of the mixed flocks – most of the Franklin’s I’ve seen tend to “loosely associate” with the Laughing Gulls, meaning they mix with them but seem to prefer to stay along the edges or shortly distant of groups; Franklin’s are rarely found deep in a large group of birds there. This technique once again proved effective on 11 October 2015, when Marie and I were able to quickly pick out a Franklin’s within 5 minutes after sunrise.
On 29 December 2007, a first cycle Iceland Gull was recorded on the George Crady fishing pier which spans Nassau Sound and connects Duval and Nassau Counties. This was an extremely tame bird that was often seen taking food from fisherman, which also allowed for close study and fantastic photographic opportunities. The bird remained through the month of January 2008.
In 2014, two individuals were found at Huguenot, with one quickly falling ill and perishing, while the other bird remained through the spring season and into the early summer season. Unfortunately, this bird also eventually perished and was collected.
Unlike the also rare Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gulls are more apt to remain at least for a few days, making them a more “chaseable” species for birders.
This fantastic species is often noted as a dominant one in the gull world, which is perhaps exhibited in the fact that it is the most likely species to be seen adorning the buoys in the St. John’s River just offshore of Huguenot Memorial Park. You can also often pick this massive gull out with the naked eye roosting on the mudflats in the lagoon at Huguenot at low tide; indeed, Grimes described them as standing out “from the common herd like a couple of vultures in a flock of crows”.
In modern times, Least Tern arrive around the third week of March and are found with regularity by the first of April. They breed in many areas throughout the county, including on many flat gravel rooftops like the JC Penney at Regency Square Mall and the old Sears Warehouse at Imeson Center. By the middle of September they are gone from the area.
Two of the most convenient places to see them are at the fishing dock at Reddie Point Preserve and along the interior of Huguenot Memorial Park, where they can often be found loafing on the mudflats.
Although regular during those months, the Gull-billed Tern is found in low numbers even at the prime locations, with few observations surpassing a handful of individuals at a time. It is a real treat to see as many as 10-12 in a given day. Up to forty could be seen in the summer of 1997 at Huguenot (Paul & Schnapf, 1997); that is a number you’re very unlikely to experience now.
They can be found hawking fiddler crabs on the marshes’ vast mudflats behind Alamacani Boat Ramp (SR 105/A1A) or at Huguenot Memorial Park – usually along the northwest portion of the park. They are rarely found on Huguenot’s ocean side beach. Another fairly reliable location for the species is Nassau Sound from either the north end of Little Talbot Island SP / Big Bird Island or from Spoonbill Pond and Big Talbot Island SP’s north beach.
The species is not known to breed here, but we do start seeing juvenile or hatch year birds in early fall at Huguenot.
In spring, Black Tern can be sought at suitable locations and still missed more often than seen, but they do move through throughout the month of May. Beginning in mid to late July, look for them along the sandbars and ocean edge at the north end of Little Talbot Island SP and Huguenot Memorial Park. They can also be found (with a little more luck) at Hanna Park. They are fairly regular at those locations through August and start declining in September. After October 1st they become very difficult again.
Unlike Common Tern, Black Terns are sometimes noted up river from the fishing pier at Reddie Point Preserve. Another great way to experience the species and observe them in multiple plumages is to get just offshore in late July, August, or early September. A trip aboard the casino boat out of Mayport ($10) is a great and inexpensive option for an afternoon a sea.
The spectacular Common Tern is almost exclusively coastal in Duval County and most observations west of the Dames Point Bridge have proven to be misidentified birds (Forster’s Terns from Reddie Point Preserve, for example). Look for Common Tern at places like Huguenot Memorial Park or Little Talbot Island SP from April through October, with numbers highest in August and early September. The movement of these terns in fall (August) seems to coincide with Black Tern, but Commons linger in small numbers through October. The highest known count followed Tropical Storm Jerry on 25 August 1995 when 680 were observed along Fort George Inlet/Huguenot (Rowan, pers comm, 2016).
The only other reports come from 23-24 May 2009, where numerous visiting birders reported a single individual from Huguenot Memorial Park while searching for the Greater Sand-Plover.
In any case, Forster’s Tern can be found almost year-round in Duval County. They are most scarce in the height of the summer during late June and all of July, and are perhaps most abundant during September and January.
Forster’s is a tern that can be found along the marshes, creeks, and quite a ways up the St. Johns River – even all the way south to the Duval/Clay County line. However, like most of our terns they are best observed along the coast with the highest concentrations at Huguenot Memorial Park and Little Talbot Island SP. They are not known to breed here.
Royal Tern Thalasseus maximus
Like the Laughing Gull, Royal Terns nest in large numbers at Huguenot Memorial Park with numbers in the summer reaching some 6-8,000 birds. Also like the Laughing Gull, this species is curiously absent in Grimes’ detailed accounts of breeding birds in the county. From what I can gather, they were not a breeding species in the 1930’s and ’40’s, and were nesting in limited numbers beginning in 1968 at Bird Island in Nassau Sound. By July 1970, Grimes noted over 1,000 nests there with most nests containing a single egg. Ogden (1970) declared it was the southernmost colony on the Atlantic Coast of the United States.
In 2000 after a visit to Huguenot, Noel Wamer remarked “The positive news would be the impressive numbers of juvenile Royal Terns in the north end flats. I didn’t count, but would guess the numbers were in the range of 200-300 hundred, if not more. There were obviously many more breeding pair present in the dunes than could be seen from the limits of the restricted area” (N. Wamer, 2000).
Royal Tern is certainly our most abundant tern in Duval County, most often found east of the Dames Point Bridge. You should be able to find them in any season along any of Jacksonville’s beaches.
Sandwich Tern Thalasseus sandvicensis
Sandwich Tern was apparently a rare species here in the early 1900’s, with just one record before 1945 – that of six birds on 5 September 1935 (Grimes, 1945, p.20).
These days, Sandwich Tern can be most abundant in early to mid August, where you can find as many as 125-150 on the beaches at Huguenot Memorial Park. They become fairly rare in winter and are sometimes missed altogether on the County’s annual Christmas Bird Count. Their abundance increases each spring by the third week of March.
Aside from a few questionable reports from Reddie Point Preserve and Blue Cypress Park, observations of Sandwich Tern are almost exclusively coastal as one would expect. Places like Hanna Park’s beaches, Huguenot Memorial Park, and Little Talbot Island State Park are the areas to seek them.
Black Skimmer Rynchops niger
Skimmers were known to breed north of the St. Johns River in Howell’s time (1932, p. 273). Grimes (1945, p. 21) noted them as a common resident, with “flocks of 500 to 1000 in winter about the mouths of the St. Johns and Nassau Rivers”. In 1945, 200 to 300 pairs were said to have nested at the south end of Little Talbot Island, and even then Grimes lamented the “thoughtless fishermen” and other “pleasure seekers” that crossed the inlet and disturbed the nesting. Doubtless, they did not have personal watercraft in the years leading up to World War II, but it’s interesting to note the problems of the present may also be the problems of the past.
On 28 June 1978, Loftin and Ellis recaptured a banded Black Skimmer at Huguenot Memorial Park. The skimmer had been banded in McIntosh County, Georgia, on 13 August 1958, making the bird 6 weeks shy of being 20 years old. At the time, this was the oldest known Black Skimmer but unfortunately it did not make it much longer. Loftin and Ellis retained the healthy bird after capture, and sent it to Iowa for physiological studies where it soon perished in captivity (Kale & Loftin, 1982).
Paul (1982) noted 145 pairs nesting at Huguenot; slightly down from the numbers Grimes mentioned in 1945 at Little Talbot Island but significantly higher than any known nest sites along our coast today.
In recent years, the species can be found on nearly any visit to Huguenot Memorial Park, Fort George Inlet, Little Talbot Island State Park, and Hanna Park’s beaches north to the mouth of the St. Johns River. They are considerably most abundant in December and January, where seeing a group of 1,000 birds is not uncommon.