Western Kingbird at Imeson.

This morning I decided to head to Imeson Center and try to poke around some of the dirt bike trails closer to Heckscher Drive, with the main purpose of trying to get access to Turner Pond. Turner Pond is a huge freshwater pond that historically has held breeding Purple Gallinules and Least Bitterns, but it’s almost unapproachable due to the overgrowth.

I arrived around 8AM and as I walked back into the woods, I encountered hundreds upon hundreds of American Robins all over the ground and roosting in the smaller trees.

American Robin, Imeson Center. Jacksonville, Florida, 10 Feb 2019.

Mixed in with the Robins were a few small flocks of Cedar Waxwings and a group of around 300 Red-winged Blackbirds. I finally made it to the edge of Turner Pond, climbed a tree, and was afforded a pretty decent view.

Turner Pond. Jacksonville,  FL.
Turner Pond at Imeson Center.

I headed back to the truck and starting driving towards the small fenced pond at the warehouse when I came across a Western Kingbird. They’re an annual but fairly uncommon winter visitor in Duval County, and this is the third one I’ve found in Jacksonville this winter season (the other two at M&M Dairy in December).

Western Kingbird. Imeson Center. 10 Feb 2019.

I decided to bird the area on the other side of Heckscher Drive directly across from Imeson – this is an small wedge of old industrial space between Heckscher and the salt marsh, with a rail road track running down the middle. I found a lot of small landbirds there, including Swamp, Song, Savannah, and Vesper Sparrow. I also notched a Marsh Wren and some other “year birds”. There is a lot of access to cord grass and the marshes over there, so I’ll definitely be back early one morning to poke around for marsh sparrows.

All in all, a good morning – over 10,000 fitbit steps in the visit, over 55 species, and I didn’t encounter a single other human. My kind of relaxinig morning!

Rusty Blackbirds. M&M Dairy.

M&M Dairy has been an interesting place to bird again this winter, so I’ve spent a bit of time out there every weekend or so. I wrote about it recently, but some interesting birds I’ve found there since December include Western Kingbird(s) and a pair of Grasshopper Sparrows. On January 20th I headed back out there on a very windy and chilly morning and tallied a nice list of around 36 species.

The highlight for this visit was a check of the swampy area at Port Jacksonville Parkway and New Berlin Road. The swamp seems to be dying, and I haven’t seen Wood Duck in there for a long time now, but I did tally at least three Rusty Blackbirds. Roger and I first “discovered” this spot for Rusties about twelve years ago and it’s been fairly reliable each winter since then.

Red-bellied Woodpecker. M&M Dairy
Red-bellied Woodpecker. 20 Jan 2019. M&M Dairy.

What is concerning is the huge swath of forest that has been cleared behind this swamp, where a developer is putting in a neighborhood of hundreds upon hundreds of homes…the development will span New Berlin and Alta Roads and the deforestation there will certainly impact the habitat these blackbirds and many other species have relied upon.

As always, I’m compelled to ask birders to consider not using playback to call the Rusty Blackbirds in…with patience, it is really not necessary as the birds will come into easy view.

Fox Sparrow! Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

I was struggling Saturday night (the 12th of January) in deciding where I wanted to go birding the next morning. It’s so hard to not bird Huguenot in the winter months but I felt really in the mood for going on a prolonged walk in the woods. I decided on Seaton Creek Historic Preserve off Pecan Park Road, thinking I could turn up a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Golden-crowned Kinglet, or something somewhat interesting. (see my 2014 article on this location).

Seaton Creek Historic Preserve. Jacksonville,  FL.
Marsh overlook, Houston Creek Trail intersection. Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

I got to Seaton just before 8AM on Sunday, January 13th, and headed down the Main Trail, staying “right” as the trail meandered past several other intersections. I walked all the way to the back corner, where I was treated to the picturesque scene in the photo above. From that point, you can pick the Houston Creek Trail back up, and so that’s what I did – knowing it’d take me into a hardwood hammock and out of the pines.

I passed the “Acadian spot” and finally saw a flurry of activity ahead of me in the palmettos. It’d been a slow day to that point and I was eager to find my first feeding flock of the morning. I got my bins on the commotion, and couldn’t believe what I was looking at! A Fox Sparrow!!

Fox Sparrow. Seaton Creek Historic Preserve. Jacksonville, FL 13 Jan 2019.

The bird above is the first one I saw in the bins, and it sat on that branch long enough for me to take a couple shots, then realize my settings were still for bright sun on the open trails. I quickly fiddled with the ISO and shutter and managed at least the shot above. Notice the deep, bold reddish streaking on the breast of this bird, as it differentiates it from the second bird below.

Fox Sparrow. Seaton Creek. Jacksonville, FL. 13 Jan 2019

As that bird moved further away, a second Fox Sparrow popped up and sat on that branch for five minutes or more. They’re not depicted here, but the bird turned around twice, allowing me to get nice shots of the back / dorsal view and all the relevant field marks. 🙂 As this bird sat there, the first bird sat a little further back and did the “smack” calls that can be found on the Sibley app.

Fox Sparrow habitat. Houston Creek Trail, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

The picture above is the habitat these two birds were in, which is not exactly what I would’ve expected for them.

I’ve been waiting a long time to see this species in Duval County, and have purposefully searched for them each winter in the cypress domes of Pumpkin Hill, Cedar Creek, and other brushy habitat on the westside. Based on all the research I’ve done for Duval, there are a handful of scattered reports dating back decades, but most are from Christmas Bird Counts…which I find of highly questionable authenticity. For example, one year there were 25(!) Fox Sparrows on one CBC. There are two or three that I actually have faith in based on the observers (Clark, Rowan, and Hintermister), the most recent of which comes from 2002.

My hot streak continues!

Thus far in January…

The Snow Goose that Marie and I found the last week of December attracted quite a bit of attention the first week of January, and I hate to think how much gas was consumed by everyone driving to the northside of Jacksonville for no other reason than to tick a year bird. Regardless, that bird lingered through at least the first week of the month, as did other notable rarities like the Smooth-billed Ani at Little Talbot Island State Park (present since December 3rd), the Red-necked Grebe (present since January 1st), and the Purple Sandpipers at Huguenot (present since early December).

The Western Kingbirds I found around Christmas stayed at M&M Dairy, but other than that no terribly unusual birds have been recorded yet in January. Roseate Spoonbills are pretty uncommon in winter and can be hard to find, but there have been a small group hanging out on the pond in my neighborhood.

This morning I birded Huguenot Memorial Park for several hours and saw pretty much everything you’d expect there this time of year except a Piping Plover or the Oystercatchers. They’re around, but I just missed them. The Purple Sandpiper(s) were not present at 8AM (the tide was out), but when I checked the area around the jetties around 11AM, I found one among the Turnstones.

Purple Sandpiper. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

While I was looking at the Red-necked Grebe, I met Tom R. and had a pleasant conversation. We’ve known of each other through email and such over the years, but had never met in person. Nice to make the connection.

Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019

I drove up the beach and around the north end of the park, and would definitely recommend four wheel drive out there – the sand is soft and powdery. Groups of shorebirds were roosting on the mudflat, including a handful of Wilson’s Plovers. I snapped this Black-bellied Plover as it cruised by the truck.

Black-bellied Plover. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

On the way back in, I parked at the nature center and walked up family beach, where I met another pair of familiar names – Janet and Gary L. from Orlando. Again, nice to make the personal connection and put faces to names. The grebe was showing pretty well at that point.

Ring-billed Gull. Huguenot Memorial Park. 12 Jan 2019.

The new road construction is progressing pretty well through the park, and they’ve cut the path right through the dunes where it’ll run “behind” the playground. I checked the small patch of remaining scrub there and had a number of birds including two White-crowned Sparrows, Gray Catbirds, Swamp and Song Sparrows, and Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. This new path for the road may actually open up a couple new birding options at Huguenot, as it will give us a chance to get closer to the interior coastal scrub.

Red-necked Grebe at Huguenot Memorial Park

Today I was able to get very good looks at a Red-necked Grebe at Huguenot Memorial Park. The bird was often difficult to see due to a combination of wind, chop, and distance, and it wouldn’t sit still for very long most of the time. It did come in close enough to provide great scope views and allowed for a short video grab.

Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. Jacksonville, FL. 5 Jan 2019.
Red-necked Grebe. Huguenot Memorial Park. 5 Jan 2019.

This bird is the first Duval County record of the species, and (pending FOSRC acceptance), would be the first in Florida since Pranty’s Hudson Beach Park bird on 13 November 2016. It would be the fifth accepted state record (along with three more accepted sight-only reports). (Kratter, 2018).

It’s another new county bird, putting me at 312 in Duval.

Reference:

Kratter, A. (2018). Twenty-seventh report of the Florida ornithological society records committee: 2016-2017. Florida Field Naturalist, 46(4): 96-117.

Duval Top 10 – 2018

It’s almost the end of the year, and I thought I’d reflect back on the top 10 birds I recorded in Duval County this past year. Considering the fact that I spent 120 nights in hotels outside of Florida this year, I feel really good about this list of birds I was fortunate to see and photograph. I’ll preface this list by saying the criteria is birds I was able to photograph – so no Swainson’s Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, or Warbling Vireo on the list. I also much prefer to find birds on my own versus chasing someone else’s, so that affects the order. There are 4 honorable mentions (rather than make a top 14 list, that’s my way of sneaking in 4 more birds. :))

Honorable mention: Grasshopper Sparrow (I found four in three different locations this year, photographed all of them), Western Kingbird (I found one on 23 Dec and two on 30 Dec), Snow Goose (I found two in two locations, one blue and one white), and Purple Sandpiper ( a high count of three on 9 December, photographed).

Purple Sandpiper, Huguenot Memorial Park (18 Feb 2018)

Without further ado, here is my top 10, in descending order:

10. Western Tanager. 23 Feb 2018. Western Tanagers are pretty much annual in the area each winter, most often coming to feeders. That is the case here, where I was invited over to view one coming to a feeder in Mandarin. It was a spectacular bird and would be higher on the list but for two reasons – I didn’t find it, and it was a stakeout “feeder” bird. This was my fourth time seeing the species in Jacksonville.

Western
Western Tanager Piranga ludoviciana. 23 Feb 2018.

9. Glaucous Gull. 3 Feb 2018. I always like seeing “Glauczilla”, and in February I found my 11th in Duval County (I found a 12th in November). The cool thing about both of these observations is that Marie and I saw them each together.

Glaucous Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

8. Iceland Gull. 3 Feb 2018. My 13th observation in Duval County, but many of those 13 were of the same lingering bird. I didn’t really realize it, but I hadn’t seen one here in 4 years prior to Marie and I finding this bird in the same flock as the Glaucous (above). This bird was a “one day wonder” and remains the only Iceland reported in NE Florida this year, and the first since 2014.

Iceland Gull, Huguenot Memorial Park, 3 Feb 2018

7. Red-breasted Nuthatch. 27 October. No, you KNOW the rest of this list is going to be good if a Red-breasted Nuthatch comes in at number seven! I found this bird at Huguenot Memorial Park of all places, on a great morning I spent out shooting with my cousin Tom. This bird followed us along the parking lot and we finally had to walk away from it. This was my first in the county since 2013.

Red-breasted Nuthatch. Huguenot Memorial Park. 27 Oct 2018.

6. Snow Bunting. 25 November. WHAT? How can a freaking SNOW BUNTING be number 6? Wait and see. This is a really tough call, actually, especially considering this is the first State record in over 4 years. It probably should be ranked higher, but it falls at number 6 because I’ve seen them several times previously in the county. I found this bird at Huguenot the morning following the evening that I saw a Lapland Longspur. This bird sat for a minute, flew off, and never was seen again.

Snow Bunting. 25 Nov 2018. Huguenot Memorial Park, Jacksonville, FL.

5. Long-tailed Duck. 27 January. This is a bird that I have been waiting a long time to see here. Lesley found this bird at the Wal-Mart pond and I was able to see it that same afternoon. Unfortunately, eager birders got too close to it and it moved across the street and eventually left after a few more days of harassment.

Long-tailed Duck, Jacksonville, FL (27 January 2018)

4. Brant. 12 March. I feel a little dirty chasing this bird considering who found it, but since it was the first county record in several decades I kind of had to. This bird lingered behind the Sisters Creek Marina for a couple weeks.

Brant. 18 Mar 2018. Jacksonville, Florida

3. Smooth-billed Ani. 9 December. This bird was reported by an out-of-towner (like so many rarities from Little Talbot Island State Park), and has remained through at least 30 December. Marie and I were in Las Vegas when it was reported, and I was really afraid it’d be gone when we got back 5 days later because of the birder behavior I was hearing about. There has been rampant harassment using playback and trampling the dunes to see this bird, and it’s the final straw for me…I have suppressed my eBird rare bird alerts, and on top of that will refrain from providing any specific location details on rare birds I might find. There are about 3 people inside the circle of trust on that right now because I’ve been terribly disappointed in the behaviors of local birders I’ve know for years. Anyway, this is an incredible find and the first record here since the 60’s.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island SP. 9 Dec 2018.

2. Ash-throated Flycatcher. 29 December. Not as rare as some of the ones above, but this one ranks higher because Marie and I found it together, and it’s honestly even a little more special because to-date, no one else has seen it. It’s roughly the 5th county report and only the 3rd county record.

Ash-throated Flycatcher. 29 December. Little Talbot Island SP.

1.Lapland Longspur. 24 November. This is number one for a variety of reasons, but mainly because it’s been such a target bird for me for so many years. I have purposefully been looking for this species at Huguenot every winter since at least 2005, and have put in countless hours working the edge of the dunes searching for one. This evening, I was walking the perimeter and came across the bird feeding with Ruddy Turnstones. I was lucky enough to see it again the following morning for extended looks.

Lapland Longspur. 25 Nov 2018. Huguenot Memorial Park.

So that’s it. I somehow managed 5 new county birds this year, when it took 3 years to get the previous 5. Things slow down considerably around 299, so I’m tickled with notching 5 more this year. I have a few nemesis birds left, and the most likely candidates for me to add to my Duval list in 2019 are Magnificent Frigatebird, Surf Scoter, Broad-winged Hawk, and American Golden-Plover. Here’s to hoping I’m right!

Still on a roll…Ash-throated Flycatcher and Snow Goose!

This is the first year in many many years that I decided not to participate in the local Christmas Bird Count (for a number of reasons), and it paid dividends. Marie and I decided to go bird at Little Talbot Island State Park to look for the recently reported Lark Sparrows (we didn’t find one). We walked around for about an hour and a half and came right up on a large flycatcher along the road – we were almost on top of it before we even saw it. I recognized it as an Ash-throated Flycatcher immediately (I’ve seen only one in Florida, but really countless ones in the west over the last 10 years).

Ash-throated Flycatcher. Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

I managed a few poor, backlit shots before it took off across the dunes and disappeared for 40 minutes. I patiently waited and it came right back out in front of me for another 5 minute look before flying off again. I waited around for another 45 minutes and birded the area, but it never reappeared. This is a pretty significant find for Duval County, and is roughly only the 5th one ever reported in the county. It was #311 for me in Duval.

Ash-throated Flycatcher (dorsal view). Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

Marie and I headed to lunch and to run some errands, and swung behind the old Gander Mountain store to check the ponds. We saw a lone white morph SNOW GOOSE mixed in with the Canada Geese. I got out of the truck to grab the camera, and I’m not sure if was my movement or something else, but the whole flock spooked and flew off over the treetops, never to be seen again. This is only the 3rd Snow Goose observation in 2018, and I was lucky enough to find two of those…and one each Blue and White!

Ash-throated Flycatcher. Little Talbot Island State Park. 29 Dec 2018.

I’ve had a pretty good run lately – to recap the last couple months, I’ve found an Ash-throated Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch, a Lapland Longspur, a Snow Bunting, two Snow Geese, three Purple Sandpipers, a White-winged Scoter, a Western Kingbird, and two Grasshopper Sparrows…not to mention seeing the Smooth-billed Ani that someone else found. I guess I can’t complain!

Not dead yet! (Grasshopper Sparrow at M&M Dairy)

Despite all the construction and changing landscape at M&M Dairy, the place isn’t dead yet. After Roger and I tallied just over 50 species there a couple days ago (including a very uncommon/rare Western Kingbird), I headed back over there this morning.

Yellow-rumped Warbler. M&M Dairy. 25 December 2018.

The back part of the “new” area to bird was full of fairly common winter species like the Yellow-rumped Warbler pictured above, and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet pictured below. (Missing was the American Pipit, Painted Buntings, and Western Kingbird).

Ruby-crowned Kinglet. 25 Dec 2018.

I got to the big overgrown dirt mountain, and saw dozens of birds fly up out of the vegetation and up to the top. I figured they were a mix of Palm Warblers and Savannah Sparrows, but decided to check them over anyway. I quickly noticed the bold eyering, burnt orange supraloral area, and median crown stripe of a Grasshopper Sparrow! As I scanned right, I saw a second one about five feet away.

Grasshopper Sparrow. 25 Dec 2018. M&M Dairy.

I fired off a few shots, but due to the distance good photos were difficult…even at 500mm. Grasshopper Sparrows are around every winter but can be extremely difficult to find, and I’d say you would miss them 99 times out of 100 when birding in Duval County. Yes, these are the third and fourth I’ve found this year, but to balance that perspective consider that the four I’ve recorded in 2018 are the only ones reported in the entire county this year.

Grasshopper Sparrow. 25 Dec 2018.

It’s hard to imagine adding two new birds to the overall M&M Dairy “patch list” at this point, but that’s precisely what I’ve done in the past week. “Good birding” indeed!

Western Kingbird. Smooth-billed Ani.

This morning Roger was in town and picked me up at 8AM. We decided to head for Sheffield Regional Park over Huguenot Park, and along the way we started to pass by (what is left of) M&M Dairy. After lamenting what was such a great place to bird, we realized the end by the new warehouse was vacant and seemed to be open for access. We parked and decided to bird M&M.

We had a fantastic couple of hours out there, tallying just over 50 species while walking all over the fields for the first time in probably ten years together. (Back “in the day” we could walk all over the pastures with permission, not so much in recent years).

As we turned the first corner of the berm (reminiscent of the “Masters Tract” in St. Johns County), we encountered groups of birds including a “greenie” Painted Bunting, Savannah and Vesper Sparrows, and a Pileated Woodpecker. As we turned the next corner, I saw a largish yellow bird fly off and land ahead of us…Western Kingbird!

Western Kingbird. M&M Dairy.

This particular Kingbird was a little more sketchy than most, so didn’t allow for very good pictures. This same area was hopping though, with an adult male Painted Bunting, Savannah and Chipping Sparrows, and a single American Pipit.

Savannah Sparrow. M&M Dairy

We continued slogging through the fields and ended up by the marshy area where Roger found a single Rusty Blackbird.

Chipping Sparrow. M&M Dairy.

Roger had to jet, so I headed to Little Talbot in search of the Smooth-billed Ani. Shortly after arriving, I met Steve and Liz from North Carolina and struck up a great conversation. They were traveling down through Florida and stopped off to see the Ani, which we found within 5 minutes behind the restroom pavilion at lot 2. The bird was very active, and we watched as it hawked a flying grasshopper in mid air, then landed with it in it’s mouth. After eating it, it seemed to be very content and we watched it for 15-20 minutes at very close distance. It seemed comfortable with us, which is probably because we weren’t calling it via recording and creeping up on us. The light was HARSH, but I managed a few shots that are pretty decent. These are all at 500mm with no crop.

Smooth-billed Ani at Little Talbot Island State Park

On December 3rd an out-of-state birder photographed and reported a Smooth-billed Ani near the first (northermost) parking lot at Little Talbot Island State Park. I was out of town for work and unable to go look for it, but Dave Foster managed to make it out there and relocate the bird. After Dave’s re-confirmation, the Hordes showed up over the next several days, leading to widespread reports of people walking through the dunes, disturbing shrubs and vegetation, and using extensive playback to call the bird up.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island State Park. 9 Dec 2018. (No playback used)

Anyone who knows anything about birding should know that a species like an Ani is a) very much out of range here, b) could consequently be a little disoriented, and c) is a social, gregarious, inquisitive species that is likely to be eager to re-join a family group. Despite that, people constantly used recordings to get the bird to respond…presumably adding to the bird’s stress and anxiety.

Smooth-billed Ani. Check out those eyelashes!

I was finally able to go look for the bird on Saturday, December 8th,  and spent 8 hours walking around the area it had been observed. I covered 20,000 “Fitbit steps” during that 8 hour period canvassing a relatively small area between those 2 parking lots, and never saw or heard a hint of the bird. There were many others there searching also, so I feel like we had excellent coverage…the only reasonable explanation to me is that the bird was present but was perhaps resting after several days of being harassed.

I went back out Sunday morning following a torrential rain storm and found the bird in the exact same patch it had been seen for days. I obviously didn’t use agitation techniques to engage the bird. A quiet and patient approach can often pay dividends. While I’m not a “lister”, I do naturally take interest in my home county totals, and this species is #310 in Duval County.

Smooth-billed Ani. Little Talbot Island SP. 9 Dec 2018.

In terms of historical context, this is actually the third report of the species in Duval County. If I might quote myself from my Species account section of this website (look under Cuckoos): “Sam Grimes reported three birds “studied at close range at Jacksonville Beach” on 29 October 1966, and two (presumably the same birds) were noted again on 5 November 1966 (Stevenson, 1967, p. 24).” So, it is certainly a significant observation and record for Northeast Florida.