The Best of 2016

There are only a few hours of daylight left in 2016, which means the birding for this year is about to come to an end. It’s been a great year, and while I spent a lot more time outside the county I still got to capture some great memories here in Jacksonville. As I reflect back, I thought I’d summarize a “top five” list of Duval County moments from 2016:

5. Coming in at Number 5 on the list is actually a day that dealt with another number – 7. I previously wrote about seeing seven species of woodpecker on 22 February 2016, which is a feat I believe has never been done previously in county history. Besides just being unexpected and virtually impossible to do, it was a great day spent birding with one of my birding mentors and best friends, Roger Clark. The image here was just the second verifiable record of the species here in the last thirty years! What’s even better than seeing one Hairy ‘pecker? Seeing two!

4. Finding and recording the third county record of a Ruff on 3 May 2016 is Number 4 on the list. Even though I blew the call on the 3rd (despite photographing it and really questioning it at the time), Dave, Graham, and I were able to relocate it on Cinco de Mayo and verify the bird. Lesson learned? There’s nothing wrong with “thinking big” and trusting your gut in the field. If you’ve looked at a million Pectoral Sandpipers in your life and something doesn’t quite look right about one to you, it probably isn’t. The best part of this story is that this was the first “chaseable” Ruff in Duval and was enjoyed by many others before departing.

3. Swainson’s Warblers. Nesting Swainson’s Warblers. In Duval County, Florida. I figured that’d get your attention, and you’re probably now wondering “How is this not Number One?”. On 1 May 2016, Dave Foster and I were birding an area in north Jacksonville looking for breeding species, to include Hooded and Prothonotary Warblers, Wood Thrush, and yes – Swainson’s Warblers. We have been on a quest for many years to track down Swainson’s along the Thomas Creek corridor, which is where we believe Sam Grimes recorded them back in the 1920’s and ’30’s. Well, this location wasn’t quite in that area but we found success regardless. It may be upsetting to many that we won’t share the location of these breeding pairs of warblers, but we just hope folks understand the reasoning behind it.

2. First county record of Green-tailed Towhee. I include this here even though I didn’t get to see this bird. On 3 March 2016, Sam Ewing from Gainesville found this remarkable Towhee as he was hiking Little Talbot Island State Park. Despite the efforts of many the following days, the bird was not verfiably recorded again.

1. My favorite birding moment of 2016 was 15 May, when I spent the morning with one of my dearest friends, Diane Reed, at Big Talbot Island SP – Spoonbill Pond. Anyone that knows me knows how I feel about Spoonbill Pond and they also know how I feel about Diane. She’s been a great friend of mine for over a dozen years and we’ve certainly seen some great birds together. The 15th of May was just one of those magical birding days where everything seemed to be clicking and we ended up seeing an astounding 84 species at a single location. Really unbelievable. I’m looking forward to trying to break that record with her again this Spring at Spoonbill!

So that’s it – I’d add a couple of honorable mentions, but then that would really be cheating and wouldn’t be a Top 5 anymore! I’m looking forward to a great 2017. Cheers and Happy New Year!

~Kevin

 

Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park

Map to Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park

Parking: Free; no entrance fee. There are a handful of paved parking places including at least one handicap space.

Trails: Very short wooded trails wind throughout the small park. The main trail has a rather steep but short decline down into a little ravine and back up again. It is not too arduous. Official trail map.

Facilities: There are a couple of picnic tables but no restrooms, port-o-lets, or running water.

The Dailey Birder’s Tips: Bring bug spray and lock your vehicle. It’s a bit remote, there’s never anyone else there, and it’s not in the best of neighborhoods.

Target Species: Northern Parula, Painted Bunting, Hermit Thrush, Ovenbird.

About:
Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park is the site of a military post dating back to 1862 when it was built as an encampment for troops during the Civil War. It was occupied by both the Union and Confederate armies during the war, and although there was never an actual fort on the property, it was heavily fortified with earthworks and cannon. Today the site is very small, and at approximately 1.3 acres it feels like you’re birding a postage stamp.

Birding Strategy:
There really isn’t much strategy involved here since the park is so small. Simply walk the wooded trails and look for migrant songbirds in season, and resident species year-round. I often include a drive around the surrounding streets on my checklist to this park, which is a good way to add various waders and water birds like Brown Pelican. In spring, this park is great for calling Northern Parula.

Summary of the Fall Season – 2016

Summary of the Fall Season

1 Aug – 30 Nov, 2016

Duval County, Florida

Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.”

The Fall Season included the passage of Hurricane Matthew, which impacted Duval County 6-8 October with high winds, damaging storm surge, and some coastal flooding. The damage was extensive enough to essentially destroy Shands Pier in Clay County, force the extended closure of the pier at Fort Clinch State Park in Nassau, and semi-permanently close Huguenot Memorial Park in Duval. As of this report, no one has been allowed into Huguenot since the storm and it is expected to be closed through at least spring 2017.

Up to three American Black Ducks returned to Perdue Pond Wildlife Area 20 November and remained into the Winter season. The drake Northern Shoveler continued from last Winter at Big Talbot Island State Park’s Spoonbill Pond through 27 August. Two of the Black Scoters at Huguenot Memorial Park remained through 6 August. A single Red-breasted Merganser was recorded in Nassau Sound at Spoonbill Pond on 6 August.

A rare-in-county Magnificent Frigatebird was reported from Little Talbot Island State Park 13 September.

The season’s only report of American Bittern was from Ringhaver Park 22 August. The “white morph” Great Blue Heron remained at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park until 22 October.

An early Northern Harrier was recorded at Dayson Basin (restricted access) on 10 August.

A remarkable 31 species of shorebird were reported in Duval this season. Fourteen American Avocets recorded at Clapboard Creek 20 November were notable, as was a Marbled Godwit at Huguenot Memorial Park on 4 August (the season’s only report). A late White-rumped Sandpiper was well photographed at Spoonbill Pond 22 October. Other notable shorebirds included three Pectoral and three Stilt Sandpipers at Spoonbill Pond 3-27 August. An American Woodcock was flushed on the trail at Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park 19 November. Three Wilson’s Phalaropes reported from Spoonbill Pond 24 August were unfortunately not verifiable, nor were three Red-necked Phalarope reported there 14 September.

Interesting larids included a report of a first cycle Glaucous Gull at Helen Cooper Floyd Park 11 November and two Gull-billed Terns at Spoonbill Pond 3 August.

White-winged Doves continue to be very scarce and localized, so a report of one in Atlantic Beach 24 November is worthwhile.

As expected, Common Nighthawk and Chuck-will’s-widow were reported up to the last week of September, but not beyond. A series of Eastern Whip-poor-will records are very important, as we don’t understand their fall or winter abundance well. Records came from Reddie Point Preserve (2 birds) 28 October and three at Ringhaver Park on 7 November. The same diligent observers noted 1 at Old Jennings Recreation Area in Clay 5 November.

American Kestrels are very limited (and declining) breeders in northeast Florida, so a record of an orphaned juvenile in north Jacksonville on 1 August is of value. The bird was taken to a rehab facility.

A very rare Willow Flycatcher was carefully observed and the vocalization noted at Reddie Point Preserve on 1 October. A Bell’s Vireo reported from Perdue Pond Wildlife Area 8 October was unfortunately not recorded.

A mini-invasion of Red-breasted Nuthatch hit the state this Fall, but only one record occurred in Duval; two were photographed in Cary State Forest on 19 November. Another “heard-only” report came from Boone Park 23 November. It was a good season for normally rare Golden-crowned Kinglets; five were reported from Taye Brown Regional Park 23 October, four at Hanna Park on 29 October, and one more recorded at Taye Brown 20 November.

A remarkably late Wood Thrush delighted many during an Audubon field trip to Spoonbill Pond on 27 November, providing one of the latest verifiable state records ever for the species.

Thirty-one species of warbler were reported this season, a significant improvement over the spring season and matches the mark set last fall. Notable warblers included a Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warbler recorded at Theodore Roosevelt Area 9 October, a Swainson’s Warbler in Atlantic Beach 22 September, a Nashville Warbler at Reddie Point Preserve 9 October, and a late Blackpoll Warbler at Hanna Park on 29 October. Prairie Warblers are rare late fall/winter residents; one was recorded at Eastport Wastelands 26 November. Several reports of Black-throated Green included one from Reddie Point Preserve 5 November, and a Yellow-breasted Chat recorded at Eastport Wastelands 8-10 November was exciting.

Grasshopper Sparrow was recorded 8 November at Eastport Wastelands and observed again there 22 November. The other 13 species of sparrow reported were all expected and nothing unusual is worth mentioning.

A single Pine Siskin was reported in San Mateo 16 November.

Duval Christmas Bird Count 2016 – Team Recap

The Duval County Christmas Bird Count occurred yesterday, Monday, December 26, 2016. The Monday date created a few attendance/participation problems and my team’s availability was certainly impacted. I’ve been doing this team/territory for eleven years and this year I was joined by Martha for the fifth year in a row. As you can imagine, I’ve seen a lot of development and habitat changes in those 11 years but fortunately some of the hotspots (like the end of Shark Road) have remained relatively unblemished. I can’t say the same for what is now the Tidewater subdivision or even how they’ve (mis)managed Pumpkin Hill State Park. Regardless, Martha and I spent a great day covering the territory together under an overcast sky that was interspersed with light rain throughout. Our team tallied 108 species, and the total CBC count is a tentative 161. Martha and I contributed a number of species that no other team reported, including Greater Scaup, Virginia Rail, Field Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Mottled Duck.

Our day began at Betz Tiger Point where we notched two Virginia Rails before dawn before hurriedly making our way to the American Woodcock spot. The Woodcock is about a 50/50 proposition there anymore, and we dipped yesterday at both dawn and dusk. We also tried two places for owls and tallied a big fat zero. At dawn, we scoped Pumpkin Hill Creek from the kayak launch area before heading up to Shark Road on Black Hammock Island, where we got all three marsh sparrows, a flyover Common Loon, and about 40 other species. We made a brief pit stop at the Cedar Point Preserve boat ramp before heading over to Eastport Wastelands to cover that territory and ensure the count got some of the specialty sparrows (White-Crowned, White-throated, Field, and Vesper) that are often missed at Talbot Islands for some reason. Grasshopper Sparrows also occur there, but can be very difficult. We managed to get all the expected species and by the “Power of Eastport”, we recorded 63 species in under two hours there, in the rain!

After Eastport, Martha and I drove through Tidewater subdivision, which is almost now completely built out. When I first started doing this count with Roger, there were just a handful of “spec homes” and it was still a great place for Woodcock, loads of ducks, coots, and moorhens, and was also the go-to spot in our area for Eastern Meadowlark. Yesterday, Martha and I saw a couple of crows and loads of Yellow-rumped Warblers, but not a single other species. Remarkable and depressing, in equal measure. We spent the remainder of the afternoon covering Black Hammock Island, trying for Brown-headed Nuthatches around Pumpkin Hill, and poking around Cedar Point Preserve prior to finishing the day back at Tiger Point.

All said, 108 species in just a sliver of the county by a team of two wasn’t too shabby!

Two more mega checklists

I’ve written about Getting to Seventy and 84 – a new record!, and I’ve recently been able to add two more visits to the 70+ club. To recap, the 70+ Club consisted of Reddie Point Preserve (71 species, 17 Oct 2015), Spoonbill Pond (70 sp., 12 Dec 2015), Ribault Monument (70 sp., 28 Feb 2016), and Spoonbill Pond (84 sp., 15 May 2016).

On 26 Nov 2016, Marie and I added Eastport Wastelands to the Club, with a four-hour, 76 species visit. The keys to big lists at Eastport are to arrive early when the passerines are more active and then cover the rest of the property repeatedly – including scoping the “recharge ponds” from the bluff at the southern part of the property. Eastport is technically privately owned and is posted for “No Trespassing” at two of the entrances, but there is a non-posted entrance to the property closer to Heckscher Drive. You absolutely need a four wheel drive vehicle to get very far, and this is not someplace you want to get stuck.

A day later on 27 Nov 2016 I led a bird walk for Duval Audubon Society at Big Talbot Island State Park – Spoonbill Pond, where my tally was an even 70 species. I was a little worried about a good outing because the pond hasn’t yet recovered from the storm surge brought by Hurricane Matthew this past October. During the surge, the pond’s water chemistry changed and it became rather brackish. Consequently, there are virtually no duck species here this winter – not even the former resident mallard/Mottled Ducks! We did manage very distant migrating Black Scoters and Hooded Mergansers, but that was it in terms of waterfowl. The highlights of the trip were very cooperative Seaside Sparrows on the rocks at the Sawpit Creek boat ramp (“life birds” for many) and Saltmarsh Sparrows that allowed a couple photographs before shying away. Toward the end of the trip we were birding the shallow pond near the restrooms when one of those fantastic birding experiences occurred: a variety of species came down to the edge of the pond to drink – in one binocular view were a Painted Bunting, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Gray Catbird, Hermit Thrush, and WOOD THRUSH drinking side-by side! The Wood Thrush is already a difficult species to see here, and to have one this late in November was almost unheard of (there are only a small handful of verified records of the species in the entire state of Florida in winter).

So I now have 4 local sites on the 70+ Club, with Spoonbill Pond a three time winner. In 2017, I will challenge myself to add Westside Industrial Park and Hanna Park to the list!

Summary of the Summer Season – 2016

Summary of the Summer Season

1 Jun – 31 July, 2016

Duval County, FL

 

Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.”

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks were fairly prolific breeders the last few summers in the Thomas Creek corridor, but their numbers were down significantly this season – to the point of being undetectable on a number of visits designed specifically to survey their presence. The only seasonal reports of the species included eight observed at the Lem Turner Spray Fields on 26 June and up to six at Westside Industrial Park on 24-25 July.

A drake Northern Shoveler continued at Big Talbot Island State Park’s Spoonbill Pond through 25 July, marking the second consecutive summer the species summered there. Huguenot Memorial Park hosted up to eight lingering Black Scoter through 17 July, marking at least the second year in a row the species persisted into summer there. A rare-in-summer female Hooded Merganser frequented the small pond in front of the Gate gas station at I-295 and Heckscher Drive from 9 June through 18 July. Up to two Red-breasted Mergansers (likely different birds) were reported at various locations in the St. Johns River the first week of June, where the species is very uncommon but annual.

Northern Bobwhite sightings continue to be valuable since they are in steep decline and continue to lose habitat to urban sprawl. Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area in southwest Jacksonville may be the most important property left for this species, and they were reported there from 8-28 June.

The breeding Least Bitterns in the small pond at Imeson Center were reported on 4 June. A “white morph” Great Blue Heron was at Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park through 27 July. Glossy Ibis are locally uncommon, so one at Spoonbill Pond from 4 June through 23 July was notable; a report of ten there on 26 June was unfortunately not verifiable.

American Coots are very limited breeders in Duval County, and the pond where they bred in 2015 was “cleaned out” by the Department of Transportation thereby prohibiting nesting this year. A pair was observed at the large pond underneath the I-295/I-95 interchange in south Jacksonville on 5 June and a single Coot was detected at Westside Industrial Park that same day.

Limpkins continue to breed and maintain a year-round presence at Westside Industrial Park. A high count of six were reported there 2-3 July.

Sandhill Cranes bred off New World Avenue again this year and two adults with two colts were recorded there on 11 June. This location continues to be the only known breeding location of the species in Duval County.

Two American Avocets were reported from Helen Cooper Floyd Park on 1 June. One Piping Plover was at Spoonbill Pond 16 July; the species is difficult to find in summer and can be even more uncommon within the “pond” there. Other notable shorebirds at Spoonbill Pond included five Spotted Sandpipers, one Pectoral Sandpiper, and two Stilt Sandpipers on 16 July.

Gull-billed Terns are another species in serious decline. Reports came from Huguenot Memorial Park on 12 June, Spoonbill Pond from 26 June through 17 July, and Big Bird Island in Nassau Sound on 18 June. Four early Black Terns were reported from Big Bird Island on 18 June; more typical reports started again on 23 July through the remainder of the season.

Acadian Flycatchers were reported from Seaton Creek Historic Preserve from 4-12 June, where they are known to breed. One was also recorded at Theodore Roosevelt Area on 15 June.

Gray Kingbirds presumably still breed at Mayport NAS but not many local birders have access to the base, and those that do don’t check there. One was recorded at Little Talbot Island State Park’s south parking lot on 16 July.

Louisiana Waterthrushes are very early fall migrants, and the best place and time to look for them is on the dirt roads of Fort George Island the first two weeks of July. Accordingly, one was found there on 3 July.