I love late July because it means the return of shorebirds and marks the beginning of the time to start looking for Black Terns. This morning I was off work and decided to cruise Fort George Island again where I was able to see another Louisiana Waterthrush near the Dyal House. I then stopped briefly at Huguenot to look specifically for Black Terns and struck out at both the jetties and the north end. Seeing nothing exceptional, I quickly bumped up to Little Talbot Island State Park and rode my bike to Big Bird Island from 7:50-9:30AM. I didn’t see any Black Terns there either, nor much of anything else (Wilson’s Plovers, Reddish Egret, a couple of yellowlegs, etc.).
It was getting hot, but I decided to bump on up to Spoonbill Pond and started by scoping from the south pavilion. There wasn’t much of anything on the pond and the water level is very high…but deep in the far corner I saw a couple of shorebirds and was quickly able to determine one was a Stilt Sandpiper! I walked all the way around the pond and managed a couple decent shots.
There were a handful of Black-necked Stilts and a couple Spotted Sandpipers as well, but not much of anything else. This is the first Stilt Sandpiper noted for “fall” in Northeast Florida this year, and is the fourth time I’ve found one here in NEFL in 2017 (Six Mile Landing, Spoonbill Pond, and Dayson Basin are the spring records). I’m not sure why no one else seems to look for them, find them, or report them around here very often. Perhaps it’s due to very limited habitat leading to a general lack of effort? What a shame because these are gorgeous shorebirds to see.
Every July around the 4th I begin looking for our earliest fall migrant, the Louisiana Waterthrush. The easiest and best place to find them is on Fort George Island along the long dirt road leading to Kingsley Plantation. Mornings are best (early), but evenings will work also – but it’s best to wait until a seasonal thunderstorm passes through the area leaving a few puddles in the road. This year I began the quest around July 3rd and made a number of visits there on weekend mornings or after work in the evenings. I didn’t turn up a single Waterthrush the first couple of weeks. On Saturday the 23rd, we decided to leave Jacksonville at 2AM and head down to the Everglades National Park to chase the super rare Black-faced Grassquit. We got there at 8AM, quickly got the Grassquit, saw the male Western Spindalis, and started heading back north.
Along the way we stopped at Wakodohatchee Wetlands in Palm Beach County to get Gray-headed Swamphen on the year list and nab some great photos with the 500mm lens. Lake Worth Beach Park wasn’t too far out of the way, so we also decided to go see the Tropical Mockingbird. Although it hasn’t been accepted (yet) by the records committee, it’s possible that could be overturned one day as there’s no question as to the ID, but rather questionable provenance. Nonetheless, it’s a cool bird to see “in the wild”.
We arrived back home exhausted after an eighteen hour round trip, but it had obviously rained alot while we were gone…meaning puddles on Fort George Island. I set the alarm for 6AM and the next morning was at the dirt road at first light. I saw the first Louisiana Waterthrush within the first half mile, and on the way back down the road I saw a second and managed some decent photographs…at least decent enough to see all the relevant field marks separating this from a Northern (which would be rare this time of year anyway).
This was the first verifiable report of the species in Northeast Florida this entire year, and so far is the only one reported this summer (fall migration). I know many local birders don’t get out in the heat very much and that’s probably a main reason for these birds going largely unreported. For me, it gives me something to look forward to in early July before fall shorebirds start arriving, and the window on them is relatively tight. Birders waiting until “fall migration” in late August/September will most likely never see this species here.
It’s been a particularly hot summer so far, the last couple weeks have been real scorchers with intense sun, making it undesirable to do much birding.
Nevertheless, there have been some notable birds around in Jacksonville. The Common Eider that has been present since 6 May is apparently still around although I haven’t seen it in weeks. I received a call yesterday that it’s been hanging out on a Heckscher Drive resident’s “beach” and under their docks; the observer even said there have been two! I’m anxiously waiting for another report and invitation so I can go observe the bird and collect more photos.
On July 2nd, Marie and I found a lone Glossy Ibis at M&M Dairy and managed a halfway decent photograph before a big rig came barreling down the road and flushed it off.
Glossies are fairly uncommon to rare in the county and there have not been many reported this year; in fact this was just the third record this entire year.
The gull and tern colony at Huguenot is doing well, although there are many dead Laughing Gulls scattered about. Royal, Least, and Sandwich Terns have all fledged young thus far, but there have been no reports of Gull-billed Terns or Black Skimmers being successful. Brown Pelicans have been roosting in the dunes and I’ve been carefully checking them out, but so far I haven’t been able to confirm any attempt at breeding/nesting. Pelicans are not known to breed in northeast Florida higher than around Volusia County, so this would be significant.
On June 11th I found a single Great Shearwater just offshore at the north end of Huguenot. I managed a few distant images of this very rarely seen species. June is the best time to see them here, but normally you’d have to venture well offshore to do so. Duval County records are about once every five years for this bird. I managed to get the word out to a few people in time for them to see the bird before it moved on.
Gray Kingbirds can be difficult to find anywhere in Duval County outside of Mayport NAS where they breed. I’ve found several so far this year, including one at Huguenot on June 20 and again on July 9th.
It may seem like all the action’s been at Huguenot but I’ve been checking other places too. I’ve cruised M&M Dairy quite a bit looking for a stray flycatcher (I’ve found Scissor-tailed there in the summer before) and Fort George Island beginning around July 1st looking for Louisiana Waterthrushes. They’re such an early fall migrant that the first three weeks of July are the best time to look for them, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to sync my availability to search for them with the overnight rains we’ve gotten.
Perhaps the most popular bird right now is the Purple Martin roost in downtown Jacksonville. For some reason it got the attention of some folks this year and it seems our local Audubon group did a full court press to get the media involved. TV, newspaper, and radio have all provided coverage on this rather spectacular sight (I’ve seen up to about 25,000 of them coming into the roost), but unfortunately that drew the interest of a bunch of a-holes and their drones. There’s really no reason to fly a drone into the mass of birds or around the trees in which they roost, but it’s happening nonetheless. In my opinion, there’s a pretty fine line between garnering public attention and keeping a tighter lid on something like this. I honestly don’t see the point in advertising this roost so publicly because I really don’t believe it’s going to make any casual observer into a conservationist or even a birder. The whole thing really made me ponder the reporting aspect of birds and right now I’ve opted to suppress my eBird reports from “Recent Visits” and from sending out “Alerts” for the first time ever. I may change my mind and soften up on this, but right now I’m still agitating on how people treat reports in general (not just the Martin roost). I guess I’m getting crotchety in my old age.
Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.”
After a few years of significant numbers, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have declined again this year making them very scarce and localized in spring and summer and almost unheard of in fall/winter. A high count of just four birds came from Lem Turner spray fields on 13 May; this is the only somewhat reliable spot for them in the entire county.
A late Gadwall was recorded 3 May at Huguenot Memorial Park. Other notable waterfowl include up to three American Black Ducks and one Canvasback that remained at Perdue Pond Wildlife Area through 5 March where they spent the winter. A young male Common Eider delighted many at Huguenot and as far up river as the Mayport Ferry from 6 May through the end of the season.
Reports of Northern Bobwhite came expectedly from Pumpkin Hill Preserve State Park and Branan Field Wildlife Area, but two from Ringhaver Park on 15 April were a bit of a surprise.
Horned Grebes were relatively scarce through the winter, so six at Little Talbot Island State Park on 19 March provided a nice record. A single Magnificent Frigatebird passed over Hanna Park on 27 May; this is a species that is only reported about once per year.
An American Bittern was photographed at Taye Brown Regional Park 29 March; a subsequent report of the bird after that remains unsubstantiated. The Least Bittern at Imeson Center was first recorded 19 May; they are known to breed in the small pond there. Another was recorded at Hanna Park’s lake on 30 May.
Two Reddish Egrets were recorded at Heritage River Road Wetlands beginning 14 May. These wetlands were recently developed by the Army Corps of Engineers as mitigation for the work they’re doing across the St. Johns River to extend the “little jetties” and backfill the marsh there. A Glossy Ibis was recorded at Hanna Park’s lake on 2 April, and another was reported from Spoonbill Pond on 18 April. So far, this species is more scarce this year than in recent years.
Swallow-tailed Kites arrived on time in the last week of February and Mississippi Kites followed two months later in the last week of April. Both species have been confirmed breeding in the county this season.
Perhaps the biggest news of the year was a single Purple Gallinule photographed in Eastport on 29 May, marking the first time in many decades that the species was recorded in the county during breeding season. Follow-up visits to re-find the bird have proven unsuccessful.
American Coots are limited breeders in the county and there was only one report of the species after the end of April. Many of their breeding ponds along highway 9A were “cleaned out” by the Department of Transportation last year, effectively destroying the suitable habitat.
Sandhill Cranes continue to breed in very small numbers off New World Avenue, and this year on May 4th just the second confirmed breeding area in the county was discovered off 9A and Baymeadows Road amidst considerable construction.
Black-necked Stilts arrived the second week of March and could be found regularly at Spoonbill Pond and Heritage River Road Wetlands; a high count of 40 came from Dayson Bason on 7 April.
American Avocets are a pretty tough species to find in any season and the only reports this spring came from Dayson Basin where an incredible 350 were estimated on that 7 April outing.
650 Semipalmated Plovers at Dayson that same morning provided a regional high count, as did over 1,200 Least Sandpipers. A very rare American Golden-Plover was recorded at Dayson Basin on 24 March but was not relocated during the visit there on 7 April. Only one Marbled Godwit was recorded this season and came from Huguenot Memorial Park on 25 March. The Godwit was recorded the following day but not after.
Red Knots are continuing to decline; just ten years ago it was easy to see flocks of up to 2,000 at Huguenot in the spring, this year the high count was just 77 on 6 April. I found Stilts Sandpipers in two locations – Dayson Basin and Spoonbill Pond. The eighteen counted at Dayson on 7 April may well be an all-time high count for the county, and there were just four left there on a subsequent visit 15 May. The other Stilt Sandpiper was found 30 April and continued through 13 May. White-rumped Sandpipers can be tricky to find and even trickier to identify for many, but I managed to find them in four locations this spring: Dayson Basin, Heritage River Road Wetlands, Haulover Creek, and Spoonbill Pond. The earliest was on 6 May at Spoonbill Pond, where it was also the largest group of them with five individuals. They were gone by 27 May.
A single Pectoral Sandpiper was recorded at Hanna Park from 2-9 April and was quite cooperative to anyone interested; inexplicably that was only four people though. It is baffling that more birders didn’t seek out this bird. Another Pectoral was reported from Spoonbill Pond 21 April.
An injured Glaucous Gull hung around the Mayport boat ramp from 8 March through the 22nd, and I recorded a second Glaucous at Huguenot Memorial Park on 15 April. The Mayport bird had an injured leg; the Huguenot bird did not.
Gull-billed Terns are still a treat when you can find them anymore, so a pair I found at Heritage River Road Wetlands 14-30 May provided a nice opportunity for many. Other observations include one at Huguenot (8 April), one at Spoonbill Pond (30 April), three at Dayson Basin (15 May), three at Little Talbot Island (19 May), and the only other one found by another observer at Hanna Park on 25 April. There were scattered reports of Caspian Tern but only two of them were supported by photographs. This is a pretty uncommon species in spring and to provide some perspective on that I still haven’t seen one here this year. I suspect many of the reports are of mistaken Royal Terns but there is no way to determine that for certain – and without photographic support it is hard to “prove a negative”. I remain skeptical of most of the reports.
Eastern Whip-poor-wills have a small window in which they can be heard singing in northeast Florida, and I found two as early as 12 March this year on Fort George Island. One was reported from Betz Tiger Point Preserve 17 March and two more from Julington-Durbin Preserve 22 March. Those are the only known reports this season for the species.
A Monk Parakeet observed at an Atlantic Beach feeder 3 March was undoubtedly an escaped pet.
Eastern Wood-Pewees are rare in spring and are very limited breeders in Duval County. A credible report came from Bolles School campus 2-8 May; a couple other reports lacked any details. Acadian Flycatchers breed in the “Thomas Creek corridor” that includes Seaton Creek Preserve. I recorded three singing on Thomas Creek 22 April during a kayaking excursion; these are the earliest Acadians recorded in county history. Gray Kingbirds are rarely found outside of Mayport NAS, but one was recorded 20 April on Blount Island and another near the entrance to Spanish Pond on 7 May.
There was only one notable swallow observation; a single Cliff was reported from Spoonbill Pond 5 May. Cliffs are rare in spring and are usually best found the second and third weeks of August.
Most thrush species are rare in spring, so seeing a variety of them and in higher than normal numbers was one of the season’s highlights. Up to eight Veery were reported at Fort Caroline National Memorial 26 April where they could be found through 7 May. Gray-cheeked Thrushes were reported beginning 26 April at Reddie Point Preserve and four at Fort Caroline 7 May was remarkable. Swainson’s Thrushes moved through 7-10 May with a handful of observations coming from the Arlington area. A single Swainson’s graced a southside yard from 7-9 May. One Wood Thrush observation consisted of a record from 12 May in an Arlington backyard.
Twenty-four species of warblers this spring was again lackluster, but may be the new normal as species continue to decline. Just three to five years ago spring warbler species numbered twenty-seven to twenty-nine but the last couple years have provided twenty-two and now twenty-four, despite there being more birders and increasing numbers of reported observations (mainly via eBird). This trend is perhaps worthy of scrutiny and more scientific study.
Regardless, warbler highlights this season included three reports of Tennessee (all from Reddie Point Preserve, 26 April-10 May), a single Nashville photographed at Reddie Point 24 March, up to twenty singing Hooded Warblers along Thomas Creek on 22 April, multiple Magnolias at Reddie Point and Fort Caroline from 5-13 May, two very late Yellow Warblers 6-7 May, a lone Chestnut-sided at Reddie Point on 5 May, and one Black-throated Green on 6 May. Despite many efforts to record Swainson’s Warbler at last year’s suspected breeding area in north Jacksonville, we were unable to detect any this year. The area had recently been impacted by a small forest fire that was still smoldering on the first visit, so that may well have impacted the species interest in the area this year.
Bachman’s Sparrows continue to be localized to the three Duval County locations, and a high count of twenty singing came from Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area on 2 April. The “marsh sparrows” continued to provide good viewing / photograph opportunities at Sawpit Creek Boat Ramp, and I’m already looking forward to taking my new 500mm lens there next fall.