Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers

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.

Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus
In December 1998, R. Clark found a Black-headed Gull on Black Hammock Island during the Christmas Bird Count. The bird was eventually seen by many and was accepted by the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee. It is the only county record to date, and remains a state review species as of 2014.
Little Gull Hydrocoloeus minutus
Patrick and Doris Leary recorded a Little Gull on Big Bird Island in Nassau Sound on 28 October 2014. The only previous report is from offshore Mayport on a pelagic trip on 21 January 1973, a trip organized by the “newly formed” Florida Ornithological Society (Woolfenden, 1973). This is an extremely rare species for the State of Florida, but only a few birders made the effort to relocate the 2014 bird despite good weather conditions for making the 6 mile roundtrip hike to Big Bird Island from Little Talbot Island SP.

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.

Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis 
Ring-billed Gull is a common fall and winter species, with first cycle birds really arriving in mid-September and increasing through October and November. By December they can be found in parking lots and most coastal or river side locations throughout the county. This pattern of seasonal abundance doesn’t seem to have changed much since the 1940’s when they were said to have reached peak numbers by early December (Grimes, 1945, p. 17). Prior to that, the largest concentration of the species in the state in the early 1900’s was noted as 2,000 reported on the 1924 CBC (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). However, in present day, some may be found throughout the summer but they are much less numerous and can be missed more often than found.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
In 1945, Grimes (p. 17) noted the species as a year-round resident, found abundantly along the coast except during June, July, and August. Today, the Herring Gull is a common species found in almost all seasons at locations north of the St. John’s River; found in significantly lesser numbers south of the river in Jacksonville’s beaches. We predominantly get immature birds, but in October and November a few magnificent adult plumaged birds can be found at Huguenot Memorial Park, providing a rather unique opportunity to study adult Herring and adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls standing next to each other in your scope view. Around the jetties at Huguenot is the prime spot to find this species dependably.
Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri
There are no records of Thayer’s Gull, but I leave this entry to remind birders to be on the lookout for one. Huguenot Memorial Park will most certainly produce one eventually.
Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides
Iceland Gull is a rare species in Florida, but has become a near-annual occurrence at Huguenot Memorial Park. Early records include 10 February 1968 and another at Mayport on 22 January 1972 (Stevenson, 1972).
Most subsequent observations are of single, first cycle birds and come from mid-December through the second week of February: 2 February 1981 (Stevenson, 1981), 1 January 1988 (Ogden, 1988), 14 February 2005 (Anderson, 2005). Early fall observations include 9 October 1993 (Wamer, 1994) and 13 November 1976 (Edscorn, 1977).
I have also recorded them twice in March, and there is another spring record from 1 April 2009. They are most often found along the area of the jetties at Huguenot, but many recent observations from 2010 -2014 have also come from the north end of the park along the beach or out on the sandbars between Huguenot and Little Talbot Island SP. There are at least two reports from a little further up river at Helen Floyd Cooper Park and the Mayport Ferry slip (28-31 December 2012).

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.

Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Once considered a rare bird in Florida (as recently as 15-20 years ago), Lesser Black-backed Gulls are now regular at some of our coastal locations, particularly Huguenot Memorial Park and the south or north end of Little Talbot Island SP. On 4 November 1995, Noel Wamer recorded 26 of them at Huguenot; Rowan (1995) noted it as the “largest concentration ever recorded in Duval County”. That number has certainly since been eclipsed, but provides some historical perspective on how the abundance of the species has changed in recent decades.
In October, it is not uncommon to find anywhere from 70 to 120 individuals at Huguenot, and from mid-October through November the numbers of adult birds of the species can be in the dozens. Similar to the distribution of Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are much easier to find north of the St. Johns River. South of the river, the only location I’d even suggest searching for them is along Hanna Park’s beach. Once again, Huguenot is the place to go for this bird.
Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus
Glaucous Gull is a rare but annual species in Duval County, with records from almost every year the last 15 years, and many periodic reports in previous decades ranging from 1972 through 2001 (see next paragraph). They are most often found from mid-December to early February, but there are a handful of early spring records including one from 23 April 2009 (R. Clark). They are usually found singly, but there have been at least two reports of two birds in a single morning at Huguenot Memorial Park, both of these observations in early January. All records are of first and second cycle birds. At least two suspected Nelson’s Gulls (Glaucous x Herring hybrids) have also been recorded at Huguenot in recent winters.The best place to look for them is around the jetties at Huguenot, and it’s worth noting that they rarely wander north from there even to the north end of the park. It’s also worth considering that the majority of observations are “one day wonders”, meaning that if you’re intent on seeing one you should make every attempt to go look as soon as you see it reported.Perhaps the oddest report of the species is of the aforementioned April 2009 individual, which Clark saw flying along the St. Johns River while eating lunch at the Sandollar restaurant.
While this is not a comprehensive list, some of the earlier known records (predating heavy use of eBird) include: 2 March 1974, 24 May 1975 (Kale, 1975), 8 April 1978 and 5 May 1979 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), four at Huguenot on 18 January 1981 (Stevenson, 1981), 25 December 1982 (Hoffman, 1983), 6 February 1991 (Ogden, 1991), 10 December 2000 – 19 January 2001 (Anderson, 2001), and 17-22 January 2003 (Anderson, 2003).
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Once noted as a “very rare straggler” by Grimes (1945, p. 17), the Great Black-backed Gull is now regular in most seasons, and about half the individuals seen are adult birds. Other early records include 6 June 1971 and a specimen collected at Mayport on 6 July 1974 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Of course they are most often seen from Huguenot, but also occur regularly at Helen Floyd Cooper, Hanna Park, and Little Talbot Island SP. Occasionally, single individuals are seen dozens of miles up river perched on light poles on the Buckman Bridge heading towards the Orange Park area.

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”.

Brown Noddy Anous stolidus
Brown Noddy is an extremely rare pelagic species with just a few Duval County records. The first report is of five individuals at Jacksonville Beach on 5 September 1950 and according to the report, the observers were able to get within twenty feet of the birds (Brookfield, 1951). The next report is from offshore on 10 September 1960 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994), followed by the next some eighteen years later of a bird perched on a buoy near the Mayport jetties on 26 July 1978 (Ogden, 1978). Another was reported at Jacksonville Beach following Hurricane David in September 1979 (Atherton and Atherton, 1980).
Following Tropical Storm Fay on 21-22 August 2008, Marie and I joined Roger Clark and one other birder under the bridge spanning Fort George Inlet (just north of and overlooking Huguenot Memorial Park) as the storm squalls continued to pass through. In addition to other wonderful pelagic species like dozens of Bridled and Sooty Terns, two Brown Boobies, one Long-tailed Jaeger, and flocks of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, we were treated to at least a dozen Brown Noddy coming in for refuge. Most of them concentrated along the western edge of the shoreline of Little Talbot Island SP about 100 yards from us, but at least one individual circled overhead so close that we thought it would hit us in the head.Aside from storm birding opportunities like this, about the only reasonable chance to ever see this species in Duval County is to head offshore in May or late August.
Sooty Tern Onychoprion fuscatus
Historically, the earliest report of Sooty Tern is of four individuals noted off Jacksonville Beach on 5 September 1950 (Brookfield, 1951). The next report is decades later on 2 August 1995, when Hurricane Erin “deposited a Sooty Tern and a Bridled Tern to Fort George Island” (Rown, pers comm, 2016). The next report comes from 5 and 13 July 1997 (Paul & Schnapf, 1997). They are another very rare species that would best be seen offshore of Mayport. The “other best way” to see them is to get under the Fort George Inlet bridge during or just after a tropical storm in August or September. This technique produced 91 individuals on 16 September 2001 (R. Clark, personal communication, 2006), and 75 on 21 August 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay.
Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus
Bridled Tern is a species very similar to Sooty Tern, and is also very similar in rarity and observation history in Duval County. The first noted record is of a specimen Grimes collected at Jacksonville Beach on 9 September 1950 (Brookfield, 1951). Coincidentally, the next known record is from the same month and day – two birds offshore on 9 September 1973 (Edscorn, 1974). One made it to Fort George Island on 2 August 1995 (see Sooty Tern account above). On 16 September 2001, 101 Bridled were observed at Fort George Inlet (R. Clark), and during the Tropical Storm Fay birding extravaganza in August 2008, four were recorded in the Inlet.
Least Tern Sternula antillarum
Grimes (1945, p. 19) noted Least Tern as a “common summer resident from late April to late September”; he also noted a very late account of a single individual on 22 December 1929 – a record suspect by today’s understanding of the species seasonal abundance.

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.

Gull-billed Tern Gelochelidon nilotica
Noted as an irregular visitor in 1945, with a first documented observation of 11 July 1925, the Gull-billed Tern is now an annual summer resident and limited breeding species in Duval County (Grimes, 1945, p.19). In June 1979 sixty-seven pairs were nesting at Mayport (Ogden, 1979), perhaps the highest breeding count in local history. Today, they arrive in late March and can be found with regularity from April through August, departing in late September. A few records are from early October.

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.

Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia
Following the first noted observation in February 1926, (Howell, 1932), Grimes referred to Caspian Terns as a “fairly common winter resident” in 1945 (Grimes, 1945, p. 21), the Caspian Tern is still best found in fall and winter, but does occur in spring and summer. This large tern is almost exclusively found here near salt water, so parks along the north end of the St. Johns River (e.g., Reddie Point Preserve) can produce them, but they are best sought at our beaches. Jacksonville beach, Hanna Park, Huguenot Memorial, and Little Talbot Island SP are the best destinations.

The species is not known to breed here, but we do start seeing juvenile or hatch year birds in early fall at Huguenot.

Black Tern Chlidonias niger
Black Tern is another species that has retained a very consistent seasonal abundance during the last century. Grimes noted them as common from mid-May through June, and then present in greater numbers during fall migration with birds moving through from late July through mid-September (Grimes, 1945, p.21). This is a near-identical pattern that we experience today. The highest number reported was 850 at Fort George Inlet during Hurricane Gabrielle on 16 September 2001 (R. Clark), prior to that the high count was of 560 following Tropical Storm Jerry on 25 August 1995 (Rowan, pers comm, 2016). Other high counts include two hundred at Huguenot on 17 August 1985 (Atherton, Atherton, 1986).

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.

Roseate Tern Sterna dougallii
There is one known report of Roseate Tern for Duval County, a bird observed at Mayport on 7 April 1974 by Grimes, Powell, and Markgraf (Kale, 1974). Other “nearby” records are from Jekyll Island, GA (10 May 2006) and Ponce de Leon Inlet, FL (23 June 2014), some one hundred or so miles to the south.
Common Tern Sterna hirundo
Grimes speculated that the Common Tern was perhaps a common winter resident, based on observations made in early fall (Grimes, 1945, p.19). Whether they were more common then or not is undetermined, but they are certainly rare in winter in present day. Individual birds can sometimes be found at Huguenot Memorial Park as late as the last 2 weeks of November, but reports after that in winter should be accompanied by photo or videographic evidence.

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).

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea
Arctic Tern is a very rare species in Duval County, with just a handful of reports and even fewer records. The first report comes from 13 May 2001, where R. Clark observed one some 20 miles offshore on a fishing charter. On 28 November 2002, Clark found 3 individuals at Huguenot Memorial Park following a nor’easter; to date that is the high count for the species in the county.

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.

Forster’s Tern Sterna forsteri
The earliest Forster’s Tern is a specimen taken from Talbot Island on 21 January 1917 (Howell, 1932). Grimes (1945, p. 19) noted the Forster’s Tern as a common winter resident and irregular in summer. He also described being able to confirm his observation of non-breeding individuals by their call, which was the only way he could safely separate them from Common Tern. This is certainly still a challenging ID, but is perhaps also reflective of the quality of optics and field guides available in the 1930’s, or the fact that he preferred his camera over using field glasses.

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.

Spoonbill Pond

Map to Spoonbill Pond
Parking: $2.00 per car; exact currency is recommended since you must put your money in an envelope and then lock box. There is no park ranger stationed at this entrance. There is ample parking in the paved lot at Big Talbot Island State Park, which is at the foot of the Nassau Sound Bridge. This parking lot is primarily used by boaters, so many of the parking spaces are long enough to accommodate a vehicle and boat trailer. It’s advisable to find a smaller parking space for your vehicle.

Trails: In addition to Spoonbill Pond, this parking lot provides easy access to the shoreline of Nassau Sound, the George Crady fishing pier, and the newly constructed multi-use pathway. The pathway at this portion of the county is an elevated wooden boardwalk that connects to the other parking lot at Big Talbot Island State Park, where there are picnic tables, bluff overlooks, and small trails through the coastal scrub and maritime hammock.

Facilities: There are permanent restrooms in the parking lot at the boat ramp and a primitive port-o-let structure at the picnic area parking lot. There are no vending machines available.

The Dailey Birder’s Tips: The parking lot can fill up quickly, especially in summer months. Secure a parking lot and then go back to put your money in the kiosk. The location is fairly remote; the nearest convenience store to the south is across from the Ferry Slip south of Huguenot Memorial Park. Grab a snack and water on your way up. If you get hungry for lunch or a late afternoon snack, head north up A1A into Nassau County and stop at Horizons or Bar Zin for a great sandwich and glass of wine or beer.

Since this location is fairly out of the way, I would really suggest combining your outing with a stop at Amelia Island State Park (just across the bridge; separate entrance fee), the Black Rock Trail (Big Talbot Island, south on A1A), Little Talbot Island State Park, and/or Huguenot Memorial Park (separate entrance fee).

Target Species: American White Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Wood Stork, Black-necked Stilt, Mottled Duck, Whimbrel, White-rumped Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Wilson’s Phalarope, Seaside Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow.

About:
Spoonbill Pond is an informal name for this pond that is directly across the street from the Big Talbot Island State Park parking lot, at the foot of the Nassau Sound Bridge and providing direct boating access to Sawpit Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway. The location is at the extreme northeast limit of Duval County; in fact, Nassau County begins as you get on the bridge heading across the sound.

Spoonbill Pond was historically excellent for many years until approximately mid 2000’s when the water dried up and the composition of the soil and water changed. Local conjecture is that a tropical storm surge flooded the pond with salt water and altered the habitat. As recent as 2013 that has started to change back to higher water levels and lower salinity, which has also brought back a higher concentration of birds and species diversity. In the summer of 2014, it was not uncommon to see literally hundreds of waders and over 100 American White Pelicans roosting at the pond in the surrounding trees. In 2016, the pond hosted the first “chaseable” Ruff in county history.

Birding Strategy:
Start your birding as soon as you get out of the car; in 2005 a rare-in-county White-winged Dove was observed here and in 2012 Red-breasted Nuthatches were reported during an invasion of the species. Safely walk across A1A to the paved “breakdown lane” adjacent to A1A along the shore of the pond and spend some time scanning the area (preferably with a scope). In summer, you could expect to pick up Anhinga, American White Pelican, Roseate Spoonbill, Green Heron, Tricolored Heron, Snowy Egret, Great Egret, and possibly Glossy Ibis in addition to Black-necked Stilts. In 1999, an extremely rare county record of Tropical Kingbird was recorded from this vantage point.

Next, walk towards the beach along the side of the bridge and a footpath will take you down to the sand. On the way, check for Seaside Sparrow year round and other sparrows in winter. Once on the sand, turn right and head south back towards the “bluffs” of Big Talbot Island. The shoreline could present Willet, Piping Plover, Least Sandpiper, Sanderling, Reddish Egret, Black Tern, Caspian Tern, and Least Tern. A couple hundred yards down the beach you’ll notice the vegetation on the right opening up a little bit; follow this sandy in-cropping and you should find a small berm about 2 feet high running along the back edge of the pond. Approach slowly and set up your scope for what will be the best viewing angles of the pond. Scan for ducks in winter, phalaropes and shorebirds in migration, and waders year-round. Depending on water levels, it may be difficult to find sandbars but if they exist study them carefully for peeps and other shorebirds. In July and August 2014, Least, Pectoral, Semipalmated, and White-rumped Sandpipers were all fairly easy to see from this location.

From there, it isn’t worth walking further south as you’d be better off driving to the other parking lot and scanning the sound from the bluff overlooks. I’d also caution you in scanning along the shoreline and the petrified trees that famously dot the beach – you are likely to find naked people sunbathing or posing for photographs, and trust me that these are not the types of people you want to see naked.

In winter, it is certainly worth scanning the bridge pilings in Nassau Sound for ducks; Scaup and Red-breasted Mergansers are fairly common and Common Eider have also been recorded there over the years.

If you have the endurance left – or perhaps you choose to start with this route – take the newly constructed boardwalk south back down A1A and bird the pond and mudflats for the same species previously mentioned. Be aware of runners and recreational bicyclists while on the boardwalk. There are two overlooks on the boardwalk that will provide a bit of shade and a bench or two on which to rest.

The parking lot itself can be quite good so take some time to bird the edges and behind the restrooms. There is a small pond in the parking lot that can attract migrant passerines; in late November one year it even provided an obliging Wood Thrush!

Lastly, the rocks around the boat launch is one of the best areas in northeast Florida to find all three marsh sparrows: Seaside, Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh. It is best to look for them in the morning when the tide is high; that combination is sure to net you at least two of the three species.