Longspurs and Snow Buntings

Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus
Lapland Longspurs have occurred periodically over the decades at Huguenot Memorial Park, which (until recently) was the only location in Duval County I had been able to find reported observations. On 25 November 1973, one was reported from the north dunes area (Hintermister) along with two Snow Buntings. The next record is from 24 February 1979 (Stevenson, 1979) and again later that year from 25 November – 18 February 1980, also in the company of Snow Bunting (Atherton & Atherton, 1980). On 15 February 1981, one was found in the company of three wintering Snow Buntings (Stevenson, 1981). Several years passed before the next report of two birds wintering from 30 November through 4 March 1986 (Ogden, 1986).

Other observations include 2 Jan 1995 (Clark), three at Huguenot 15 November 1995 (Rowan, 1995), five individuals from 27-29 Dec 2000, as many as eight throughout January 2001 (Anderson, 2001), three from 8 December – 4 January 2002 (Anderson, 2002), 1 January 2003, and 1 December 2007 (Richter). The next record came from 2 December 2017, from Spoonbill Pond of all places (this Spoonbill Pond record is the only known observation at a location other than Huguenot).

On 24 November 2018, I finally found one at Huguenot along the interior of the lagoon, which was my first in the county. I met Dave Foster out there the following morning and before we relocated the Longspur, I found a Snow Bunting sitting in roughly the same location along the lagoon!

On 18 November 2019, Mike Charest found two Laplands around the family beach area, and at least one of these two was well recorded through the 22nd.

With the exception of one report locating the birds on the base of the jetties, all other observations at Huguenot have been in the dunes at either the north end of the park or along the interior of the lagoon. This is now an area restricted to pedestrian or vehicular traffic, so your best bet is to walk the perimeter of that roped off area from mid-November throughout January and scour the base of the dunes among the vegetation.

I wrote that last comment in 2013 and had been using the technique for fifteen years before finding the one in 2018.

Chestnut-collared Longspur  Calcarius ornatus
On 28 December 1998, Clark observed two Chestnut-collared Longspurs in a dredge area off Blount Island in north Jacksonville. It is the only report of the species for Duval County.

Roger’s well-documented accounting of the observation is as follows: “There had been a powerful cold front the day before and the high was struggling to reach 40. I was doing a bird survey and was still in my vehicle when two small passerines jumped out from the edge of the road, where they were feeding on weed seeds. Blount Island back then had vast areas of undeveloped land. This habitat was vast barren areas with scattered wetlands and large areas of grasses – not unlike the western edges of the Great Plains. I could tell immediately that these were longspurs. I assumed they would be Laplands, but the markings just weren’t bold enough. Luckily they were very obliging and sat there, not 50 feet in front of me, for approximately 3 minutes. I had 10×40 bins and had point blank looks. I did not get pictures. I determined these were adult non-breeding Chestnut-collared Longspurs. I had actually been birding that summer in Colorado and had become quite familiar with this species. Where Lapland’s have broad rufous wing bands these birds had gray. Instead of a warm rich color tones these birds were rather colder gray and brown colors. I could see the distinct outline, however, of the very dull winter rufous nape. They did not have streaking along the sides and had plain gray underparts with faint horizontal barring. They had two very bright and distinct white wing bars. The back was distinctly barred, but not boldly, nor was it diffuse, as is the case on McCown’s. They both had weak malar stripes and a comma-shaped black line coming back from the eye. There was another large blackish spot on the edge of the cheeks and below the “bottom” of the comma. These birds both had distinct white-eye rings. Finally, when they flew there was extensive white on the tail with a black triangle in the middle. These field marks separate them from either Lapland or McCown’s.

Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis
Snow Buntings occur infrequently in Duval County, where nearly all records are from Huguenot Memorial Park. The earliest report happens to also be the first verifiable state record, from “north of the mouth of the St. Johns River” on 28 November 1969. In this area of what I presume is today called Huguenot Memorial Park, Stevenson and Stevenson “collected” two of the nine birds there (Robertson, 1970). At least one of the remaining seven survivors was reported the next month on the 1969 Christmas Bird Count.

As previously mentioned, one was reported on 25 November 1973 along with Lapland Longspurs. A year later, another was reported on 5 March 1974, and at least one wintered at Huguenot (née Ward’s Bank) from 19 November 1977 to 29 January 1978. One was seen on 31 December 1978 by Joe Wilson, and another report of a wintering bird occurred from 25 November 1979 through 18 February 1980. Three more were observed from 25 December – 23 February 1981 (Stevenson, 1981). The next recorded observation is from 14 December 1988, when Clark noted a first winter female in the area of the old parking lot on the river side (this parking lot is long since destroyed by erosion).

On 22 Jan 2011, my wife Marie and I found one sitting on the jetty rocks at first light; the bird remained through the 30th of that month. That same month, individuals of this species were also recorded in Palm Coast and St. Augustine at Vilano Beach.

In 2013, four were reported on 13 December by Patrick Leary, and within a few days that number dwindled to three. The three birds remained through 1 March 2014 and were part of the wonderful ‘triple crown’ of Northeast Florida birding that January, along with the Snowy Owl and a Harlequin Duck at Fort Clinch State Park in Nassau County. Untold numbers of birders from around the entire southeastern United States made the journey for the Owl and took in all three of the aforementioned species.

The next record for the county (and incidentally for the entire state) came some five years later, on 25 November 2018, a bird I found when trying to relocate the Lapland Longspur noted above. Dave Foster caught a brief glimpse with me before the bird flew off and was not relocated; fortunately we were able to photograph it before it departed.

Although Snow Buntings sometimes venture to the north end of Huguenot, this species seems to prefer the area along the base of the jetties and back along the beach and dunes leading back to the campgrounds on the river side of the park. In winter, park at either the last picnic pavilion and walk east along the river, or park at the jetties and walk back west towards that same pavilion. Scan the edges of the dunes and along the wrack lines for buntings, but do not walk up into the dunes – you will be ejected from the park if caught doing so.

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