30 Aug 2015 – August Duval County Twelve Day Big Year (12DBY):

Key August 12DBY target species: Yellow Warbler, Piping Plover, Cliff Swallow, Bank Swallow

Final August 12DBY results: 62 ABA countable species, 8 eBird checklists, 2,950 individual birds observed.

Best targets achieved: Yellow Warbler

This month’s 12DBY sort of got away from me a little bit. My plan was to scour for the swallows and then declare the 12DBY the following day, which I did – but the payoff wasn’t quite there. I spent the last week in Arizona for work, and managed a couple days birding SE AZ again by extending a weekend. I tallied some excellent western species there, including White-eared Hummingbird, Lucifer Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Sinaloa Wren, and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. When I got back in town I realized I hadn’t done this month’s competition so I headed out on the 29th and did manage three new county year birds: Least Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, and Bank Swallow.

This morning I began at Huguenot Memorial Park, where the tide was extremely high (perhaps a result of former Tropical Storm Erika) and the beach was largely inaccessible. I was really hoping for the swallows and a Piping Plover to add to my total, but didn’t manage it. I then headed to the southern tip of Little Talbot Island State Park to scan the ocean for pelagics and the beach for plovers. I saw some Black Terns but the beach was under water all the way to the dunes, which is really unusual for this area.

I picked up Marie and headed to Westside Industrial Park, where we found a Yellow Warbler along the edge of the pond near Jesse B Smith Court. We added a few more nice day birds there, including 2 juvenile Limpkin and 4 adults. We drove around Jones and Cisco Roads, checking the fields for “grass pipers” or swallows over any ponds, but things were very still.

After lunch I tried Eastport Wastelands for the Least Flycatcher again, but all three entrances were flooded due to recent heavy rains and I wasn’t going to risk it even in my 4×4. I decided to finish the afternoon back at Huguenot at low tide, but it wasn’t very active and I couldn’t find a Piping Plover or single swallow.

So, I finished August with 1 new species for the 12DBY – a Yellow Warbler. That brings me to 203 this year in 8 days, which isn’t too shabby. Next month I’ll plan on either declaring on any staked out grass pipers or waiting until the third week of September to target migrant warblers and thrushes.

New 12DBY species: Yellow Warbler.

Finches, Euphonias, and Allies

House Finch Haemorhous mexicanus
It’s interesting to note the arrival of House Finch in Florida and in Duval County; Edscorn (1976) noted that they did not occur in Florida through 1975, but was obviously foreshadowing their arrival in the state as the species continued to push south from New York. The first report from the Jacksonville area came from Ron Davis in mid-December 1984 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). The next reported observation followed nearly a decade later in the winter of 1993 (West, Wamer, & Pranty, 1994), and they were first noted as a probable breeding species in summer 1995 (Paul & Schnapf, 1995). Four years later, House Finches were noted as established breeders during the summer 1999 (Paul & Schnapf, 1999), and they have continued in that status ever since.

Today they can be found throughout the county in most seasons, where they are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders. Reliable places to find them are on the grounds of Kingsley Plantation, Reddie Point Preserve, Blue Cypress Park, and Huguenot Memorial Park (in winter).

Purple Finch Haemorhous purpureus
Purple Finch is another species that was reported with a little more frequency in previous decades, but they have not occurred much in the last fifteen to twenty years. Maynard mentioned seeing a Purple Finch in Duval County, which would have been sometime in the 1880’s (Howell, 1932), but the first specific observation comes from Mrs. H. Robinson on 14 May 1950.

Eight were reported on the 1963 Christmas Bird Count, and they were not recorded again until 1971 when they began appearing on the CBC almost annually from 1971-1983. In the winter of 1971-1972, Purple Finches were noted as particularly abundant during an irruption year across the southeast. Virge Markgraf reported one on 18 November 1982, marking perhaps the earliest fall county record (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). Hoffman (1983) noted high numbers of Purple Finches in the area during the winter of 1982-1983, and there was one report from Fort George Island the following winter on 26 December 1983 (presumably on the Christmas Bird Count).

The next report came from Black Hammock Island during the 1985 CBC on 28 December. There were a few reports in January 1986, and one wintered in 1987-88 (Ogden, 1988). A decade passed before the next report when Peggy Powell noted several during the winter of 1997-1998 (West, 1998). The most recent record is from 17 December 2015 when Dennis Peacock photographed three off Interstate 10 in extreme western Duval County.

Purple Finches should not be expected in the county, as they are not a regular winter visitor but bird watchers should pay careful attention to their backyard feeders in December through February.

Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea
Since it is part of the county’s lore, I will mention that a Common Redpoll was reported on the 26 December 1971 Christmas Bird Count. According to Stevenson & Anderson (1994), the observers had a “close leisure study of all field marks”, but the record was not accepted by the state committee and remained on the hypothetical list for Florida.

Pine Siskin Spinus pinus
Pine Siskins are another highly variable species that do not occur in Jacksonville in most years. On average, they seem to occur here in just two or three winters every decade. The earliest record in the area comes from 7 February 1947 near the Duval/Clay County line in Orange Park along Route 17 (Weaver, 1948). In the winter of 1971-1972, they were noted as “numerous” in Jacksonville (Stevenson, 1972). The next known report is from 15-25 January 1973 (Woolfenden, 1973) and another followed six years later on 23 January 1979 by Virge Markgraf (Stevenson, 1979).

There are a handful of reports from the 1980’s: six on 28 January 1982 (Stevenson, 1982), 28 December 1985, January 1986 (Langridge, 1986), and again on 16 May 1986 – providing the latest known County report (the previous late date was 3 May 1972). In January and February 1988 they occurred in small numbers in Jacksonville, and a group of six were reported throughout February 1991 (Ogden, 1991).

A period of almost 15 years passed before the next report – Noel Wamer noted one on 4 March 2005. In March 2011 a few visited a feeder along US 17 in north Jacksonville, and it wasn’t until the winter of 2014-2015 that they occurred again. In January 2015, they could be found in large flocks in several areas including Seaton Creek Preserve, Durbin Creek Preserve, and Thomas Creek Conservation area. As many as fifteen remained at a private residence through 6 April 2015. Sporadic reports have occurred since then, with the most recent being of four birds visiting an Arlington area feeder in January 2019.

Seaton Creek Preserve is an ideal place to try for this species each year, but I would not expect to find them there in any particular winter. I’d simply suggest planning a visit there in mid to late January to look for Brown-headed Nuthatches and sparrows, and listen carefully for them.

American Goldfinch Spinus tristis
American Goldfinch are an annual winter resident, arriving as early as mid-October and remaining through late April, and in some cases – early May. Consistent with their nature, they can be a bit unpredictable to locate on a given day but can be found with a bit of effort. Fairly reliable locations include Pumpkin Hill State Park, Sheffield Regional Park, Reddie Point Preserve, and Blue Cypress Park. They are also very reliably found along the UNF nature trails circling Lake Onieda, and are frequent mid-to-late winter season visitors to residential bird feeders.

Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus
There are a number of county records for Evening Grosbeak, beginning in the winter of 1968-69 when the species invaded Florida by the thousands. Stevenson (1969) noted a specimen taken 9 February 1969, and Grimes reported as many as twenty in the area a couple of weeks later.

The remainder of observations all occur from 1972 through 1989. There have been no county reports in the last twenty-five years, so I would obviously not suggest that one should expect them here – but they will undoubtedly occur again during a future irruption year.

In the early 1970’s, Julie Cocke was fortunate enough to have Evening Grosbeaks visiting her backyard on multiple occasions: 21-23 December 1971 (male and female), 13-18 January 1973 (two females), and 4-20 March 1973. Additional records from the Jacksonville area during the 1970’s include 12 December 1972, 30 April through 7 May 1973 (Kale, 1973), and 12 December 1977. Woolfenden (1973) noted that they appeared in “good numbers” throughout Jacksonville in the winter of 1972-1973. In the winter of 1977-1978, they were noted as “not plentiful” by Virge Markgraf but they could be found around the county nonetheless (Stevenson, 1978).

Observations persisted intermittently throughout the next decade, with reports from January-February 1981 (Stevenson, 1981), 22-24 April 1987 (Langridge, 1987), and two birds visited S. Jarvis’s feeder the week prior to 23 December 1989 (Ogden, 1990). According to Cocke, during the winter of 1980-81 many people had Evening Grosbeaks coming to their feeders, with Dr. Cole in the Orange Park area having as many as twenty all winter!

House Sparrow Passer domesticus
Based on Howell’s (1932) notation that the species occurred as far south as Crescent City by 1886, it is reasonable to presume House Sparrows were in Duval County sometime around the mid-1880s (R. Rowan, pers comm, 2016). They showed up on the Christmas Bird Count for the first time in 1924, with a rather impressive seventy noted for a “first occurrence”. Today they can be found throughout the county in places where you’d typically expect to find them – parking lots, gas stations, and urban areas. Fortunately they have not established a presence in most of our more natural parks and birding hotspots. If you must seek them, fairly reliable places include Riverside Park, the Jacksonville Landing, the streets of downtown Jacksonville, and along Atlantic Boulevard at the Jacksonville Beaches.

Cardinals, Grosbeaks, and Allies

Summer Tanager Piranga rubra
Summer Tanager is a fairly common breeding species in Duval County, with the earliest documented nesting occurring on 15 May 1934 when a set of eggs was collected and sent to a museum (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). As of 2015, they are still regular (but declining) breeders in the area, and can best be found on territory at places like Fort George Island, Sheffield Park, and Seaton Creek Preserve. In mid-April, begin listening for their diagnostic ‘dripping’ call from about 1/4 mile away from the entrance to Kingsley Plantation and basically all around the surrounding area then leading up to Kingsley. At Seaton Creek Preserve, they can be found along the main trail leading from the parking lot anywhere within that first half mile, and then throughout the large area deeper into the park. In addition to Sheffield Park, you can find them along Houston Avenue on Big Talbot Island and in the pine forest of Taye Brown Regional Park.

Summer Tanagers have also been known to winter in the area as far back as 1953, and are reported from backyard feeders in town annually. Curiously, there is one known record from the month of November – a bird reported by Grimes on 5 November 1967. In early 2015, Marie and I found one in the parking lot of Blue Cypress park, but they should not be necessarily expected in winter months. Look for them readily between 15 April and early August for your best chance at finding them.

Scarlet Tanager Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager are uncommon but regular migrants in the Jacksonville area, and are more often missed in any given year by local birders than seen. On 8 March 1982, Virge Markgraf reported one that was the earliest arrival in state history at the time (Kale, 1982). They normally arrive in mid-April and pass through over the next three weeks; after the first week of May they are gone. They’re more common in fall and pass through for about two weeks longer; look for them from the last week of September through the end of October. On 8 October 1966, Grimes reported a remarkable 30 birds of the species in one patch (Stevenson, 1967)! A record of one on 25 November 1974 is the latest known county record (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). There are no known winter or summer observations.

There are scattered reports over the years at places like the UNF Nature Trails and Hanna Park, but Reddie Point Preserve and Fort George Island are the predominant locations to find them. At Reddie Point, they seem to favor the parking lot area near the Mulberry trees and the wooded trail that bisects the main and marsh loop trails. Cedar Point Preserve is another very likely spot for them, but the location is extremely under-birded.

Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana
The earliest record of Western Tanager in Jacksonville is one that arrived 21 March 1972 and remained at least through the end of that season (Stevenson, 1972). The second known report is from 3 October 1979 (Atherton & Atherton, 1980), and another was recorded a few months later from 4-6 March 1980 (Kale, 1980); 20 years passed before the next report, which came from Julie Cocke on 7 October 2000 (Pranty, 2001). Cocke then also recorded the next one on 16 January 2004, and Clark had one on Fort George Island on 17 September 2005. Four years later, Clark had another there on 10 October 2009, and six months later Donald Pridgen reported one from Hanna Park on 30 April 2010. Carly Wainwright graciously hosted a young bird at her feeders in March 2013, and allowed many local birders to come view the bird. On the 2013 Christmas Bird Count (December 28) I found one deep in the oak hammock at Cedar Point Preserve, providing the first (and only) CBC record of the species for the county. In March 2014 and 2015, a resident in Mandarin reported one coming to their feeders, and noted that the bird was present for months both years. Most recently, a remarkable two birds visited the feeder area at the Jacksonville Zoo’s education center from 27-30 January 2016.

As you can see, Western Tanagers are rare in the county and all but two observations were of birds visiting feeders. There may be enough of a pattern to suggest September/October and March/early April are good times to keep your eyes open for them, but they shouldn’t be expected. Locals should try keeping jelly and orange feeders out in residential areas during winter to see if they can attract one – and get the word out if they do!

Northern Cardinal Cardinalis cardinalis
Northern Cardinal is one of most abundant species and can be found year-round in almost any habitat. They occur on a whopping 50-70% of all eBird checklists submitted in Duval County, and you will have no trouble finding them anywhere you find yourself birding.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheucticus ludovicianus
The earliest report of Rose-breasted Grosbeak comes from 21 May 1962 and in terms of numbers, high counts include a staggering 30 on 8 October 1966 and 25 birds observed by Julie Cocke on 16 October 1983 (Atherton & Atherton, 1984).

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks closely mirror Scarlet Tanagers in terms of distribution, abundance, and timing. They pass through in spring from mid-April through the first week of May, and again in fall from mid-September through October. There are no known records in summer or winter. They commonly visit feeders in spring and fall, but perhaps the best place to look for them is Reddie Point Preserve around the parking lot and mulberry trees.

Black-headed Grosbeak Pheucticus melanocephalus
There are two reported observations of this western species in Duval County. The first was a well documented one coming to the feeders of Jessie B. Hufham from 5-11 January 1986 (Ogden, 1986), and a female visited Julie Cocke’s birdbath a few years later on 12 October 1989 (West, 1990). While certainly not to be expected, birders should carefully study any first winter or female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks to be sure Black-headeds aren’t sneaking by undetected.

Blue Grosbeak Passerina caerulea
Although they were not known to be breeders by Stevenson and Anderson (1994), Blue Grosbeaks are indeed a summer resident breeding species in Duval County and were actually noted as such by Edwards and Grimes in 1966 (Cunningham, 1966). They tend to occur from the beginning of April through the end of October, and there are two known winter records; one from 2 December 1973 and another seen by Mark Dolan at Little Talbot Island SP on 28 December 1995 (Rowan, 1996). Starting in April, they can be found along the power line cut at M&M Dairy, adjacent Sheffield Regional Park’s athletic fields, all over Eastport Wastelands, and Seaton Creek Preserve. They can also be found throughout the westside of town and Julington Durbin Creek Preserve in south Jacksonville. The males are known to sing into late August here.

*Lazuli Bunting Passerina amoena
Lazuli Buntings are extremely rare in Florida, and should not be expected in Duval County in any year. There are no known reports from Duval, but there was one reported at a feeder in Ponte Vedra Beach in St. Johns County 20-21 March 1991 (Langridge, 1991). I don’t often include species accounts from other counties in this text, but the extreme proximity to the county line of this exceptionally rare species compels me to mention it, and heck – we can presume it passed through Duval County airspace on the way to or from St. Johns.

Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea
Indigo Buntings are mostly year round, but disappear in winter months. There’s one winter record from 24 January 1981 at Julie Cocke’s feeders (Stevenson, 1981). There are a handful of observations from February and March, but they really start arriving in April and remain through the breeding season. By the end of October they can be scarce, and the late fall record is of a single bird noted on 24 November 1973. In migration, look for them along the trails at Reddie Point Preserve, Fort George Island, and behind the athletic fields at Sheffield Regional Park. They are limited breeders and in summer they can be found with some difficulty at Sheffield Regional Park and Seaton Creek Preserve. In July 2015, I found juvenile birds around the south end of Fort George Island suggesting breeding at that location as well.

Painted Bunting Passerina ciris
Painted Buntings are one of the most sought after species in Florida, and that holds true in Duval County. The earliest record comes from 19 May 1931, when a bunting’s nest was raided for the eggs to be sent to a museum’s collection (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). On 2 January 1969, Grimes noted one as perhaps the first known winter record in the county (Stevenson, 1969). Today they can be found throughout the year, but are more obvious and abundant during spring and summer, where males tend to sing for months on end. In winter, they tend to be found south of the St. Johns River at bird feeders while in summer the concentration is notably north of the river at places like Little Talbot Island State Park and Fort George Island. Those two locations are the absolute best bet for finding male Painted Buntings in the county. At Little Talbot Island State Park, there are unadvertised white millet feeders behind the building just past the pay station; if you strike out there just drive the road to the south end of the park and listen along the way for singing males (April – early August). The species is rather abundant on Fort George Island, where they can be found anywhere around the Ribault Club, on the grounds and Kingsley Plantation, and around the tabby ruins just after you pull onto the island.

Dickcissel Spiza americana
Historically, reports of Dickcissel include 22 March 1962, 4 March-5 April 1965, 1969 CBC, 30 April 1971, 6-16 November 1973, one that wintered from 1972-73, 28-29 October 1976, and one that lingered from 1 March – 5 April 1981 (Kale, 1981). Today, Dickcissel remains an extremely rare species in Northeast Florida and shouldn’t be expected in Duval County, although one was photographed in the western part of the county on 9 March 2011 and another observed near Theodore Roosevelt Preserve on 9 May 2013.  Marie and I carefully observed a juvenile at Reddie Point Preserve on 7 September 2015 (which happened to be my 300th species recorded in the County!). K. Eldredge at photographed one at Spoonbill Pond on 31 January 2016 and I had one flyover in east Jacksonville on 15 March 2016.

While many reports are from individuals visiting feeders, the report from 1971 is of three birds collected after striking a TV tower downtown (Kale, 1971).

26 Jul 2015 – July Duval County Twelve Day Big Year (12DBY):

Key July 12DBY target species: Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Tern, Black Tern, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper

Final July 12DBY results: 82 ABA countable species, 8 eBird checklists, 4,467 individual birds observed.

Best targets achieved: Common Tern, Black Tern, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper

My strategy for July was to wait until late in the month to try to land some of the early migrant shorebirds and Black Tern. On the 25th, Roger Clark (who spent a couple weeks in town) and I found 2 Louisiana Waterthrushes on Fort George Island and a few shorebirds at Spoonbill Pond that I could use for the 12DBY, so I declared the following day to try for those species.

My 12DBY for July started at Shell Bay where I met Roger to begin our morning. I didn’t add anything new for the challenge, but we picked up things like Roseate Spoonbill and Little Blue Heron. Our first official stop was Fort George Island, where a quick drive through of the 4.4 mile loop did not produce any Louisianas.

We headed across the street to Huguenot Memorial Park, where we had a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron on the edge of the lagoon – an uncommon species for Huguenot and a new 12DBY species. I managed two other new species here – Lesser Black-backed Gull (a pristine adult) and a single Common Tern. We had a nice variety of other species including several Reddish Egrets, but did not see one of Roger’s targets, the Gull-billed Tern.

After leaving Huguenot, we headed north on A1A to Big Talbot Island’s Spoonbill Pond, where we had 17 species of shorebirds but encountered no other birders – on a weekend day! Overall, Spoonbill Pond produced 46 species including Glossy Ibis, summering Lesser Scaup, 5 juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, a single Marbled Godwit, 4 Stilt Sandpipers, and 8 Pectoral Sandpipers (the latter two species also new for the 12DBY).

I had a brunch date with my Mother in 5 Points (Riverside area of Jacksonville), so our last stop was along Houston Avenue on Big Talbot Island. Houston Ave is a heavily canopied coastal hammock with large oak trees, and we’ve always thought the birding should be great, yet rarely is ; we managed a few woodland birds, the best of which was Summer Tanager and Yellow-throated Warbler.

After lunch in 5 Points at the Mossfire Grill, I swung by Eastport Wastelands to add the Black Terns Roger and I found there a day or two previously. The terns were foraging just above the surface of the “recharge ponds”, and I counted about 40 of them! Two Mississippi Kites were also nice to watch in Eastport on my way out.

Figuring I couldn’t do much more damage in July, I called it quits and headed home. It was a successful 12DBY – 6 new species, bringing my 12DBY total for Duval County to 202 species.

August is upon us, and my strategy is to either pull the trigger around the 16th if I am able to find Bank and Cliff Swallows there, or wait until the last few days of the month to try for more shorebirds like Upland or Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

New 12DBY species: Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black Tern, Common Tern

A word about Cliff Swallows in Duval County

Some recent eBird reports of Cliff Swallow in Duval County have prompted a few thoughts that I think are worthy of consideration. Cliff Swallows are undoubtedly annual in northeast Florida / Duval County, but they are very uncommon-to-rare and can also present identification challenges, even to seasoned observers. To put their abundance in context, they are more often missed than seen by active, experienced birders each year in the County. I look for them at the appropriate time of year and in the right habitats, and still have only seen them in 3 out of 15 years of birding here.

Main challenges in identifying Cliff Swallows begin with finding a suitable flock of swallows that allow for careful observation, and most of the time those flocks (when found) are out over pastures, dunes, and can be in “bad light”. The similarity to other species (like the exponentially more common and abundant Barn Swallow) then make for additional challenges.

For example, I was with 3 other very experienced birders this year on August 1st when one of the group identified a single Cliff Swallow out over a cow pasture. We stood there for another 15 minutes and not one of us could relocate the bird. Each of the four of us had varying levels of field experience with the species, but I can tell you I’ve observed Cliff Swallows many times and in four different states – yet was still unable to pick this individual out of the group. I’ll add that August 1st is considerably ‘early’ for the species locally – over the last two decades they routinely arrive around August 15th.

On August 2nd and 3rd, several individual birds were reported from Huguenot Memorial Park, which is the right location but about 2 weeks early. It’s not to say their presence there is impossible by any means, but it’s more likely that the inexperienced birder reporting them triggered their ID based on reports from the previous day.

I encourage everyone to get out there and study swallows, but proceed with a little caution when making the identification of Cliff Swallow – they’re very uncommon, pass through the area quickly, are usually found in large mixed flocks of similar species, and are just tough to ID for most observers in most conditions. August 15-18th at Huguenot Memorial Park over the dunes is your best bet – work the dunes running from the jetties all the way to the north end of the park.