Petrels & Shearwaters

There are no known county records of Albatross, Northern Fulmar, or Black-capped Petrel, but there have been five species of shearwater observed in Duval County over the years. While most of the observations have been offshore on pelagic outings, there are occasions where shearwaters can be viewed from land…particularly Great Shearwaters. To quickly summarize seasonality: summer is good for Cory’s, Great, and Sooty Shearwater; winter is better for Audubon’s and Manx. Read on.

Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans
There is one report of Wandering Albatross described by Elliott Coues in the late 1800’s (1885). According to Coues, B.H. Barrett received a written report from a tug captain named Alfred Ames Howlett, who was based in Mayport and stated he had “positively identified” a Wandering Albatross at the mouth of the St. Johns River in May of 1885. Howlett said he “discovered a large bird hovering near the surface of the water in the channel near ‘Ward’s Bank'”, and circled back to fire on it with his gun but was unable to get a shot (Coues, 1885). (Ward’s Bank is what we now call Huguenot Memorial Park).

Howell described this article in Florida Bird Life, as did Grimes in his later articles. Greenlaw et al. (2014, p. 247) include this same story and suggest that the observation could potentially have been of an Osprey, which by today’s standards would certainly be much more plausible. I’m certainly in no position to render an opinion on the validity of this observation, but am compelled to include it here as a treasured part of the history of birding in Duval County.

Bulwer’s Petrel Bulweria bulwerii
Stevenson and Anderson (1994) noted one Bulwer’s Petrel observation; a bird reported some 101 miles east of Jacksonville on 1 May 1984. There are no accepted records of the species in Florida, but Greenlaw et al. (2014) include it in the reported-yet not verified-but could possibly naturally occur as a vagrant-list.

Cory’s Shearwater Calonectris diomedea
Cory’s Shearwater should be fairly “common” offshore during the late spring and summer months, but there are just not enough birders going out to sea to observe them. They can occasionally be viewed from shore if the timing is right and weather conditions favor us with onshore winds, as was the case in early June 2014 where a seawatch from the shore at Huguenot Memorial Park produced one and possibly more birds. There are also a few reports in early September from offshore pelagic trips. I’ve only seen one Cory’s from shore and thus can attest to how rare an observation that is locally.

The earliest known record is from 16 June 1969, followed by another observation the next year on 22 August 1970, where two were seen about eight miles offshore of Mayport (Ogden, 1970). A specimen was collected on 28 May 1973, and twenty-two birds were reported off Mayport on 10 August 1974 (Edscorn, 1975). It is worth noting that Edscorn (1974) reported the species as “regular off Mayport in August and September”, suggesting the window for searching for them could be June through September if you combine my analysis with his.

Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis
Great Shearwater is also an expected species each summer, but like Cory’s would most likely be found just offshore during those summer months. The first report of Great Shearwater may well be one documented by Howell (1932, p. 79), where he noted a “stuffed specimen…taken off the coast near Jacksonville” that was on display at Greenleaf and Crosby’s store in Jacksonville sometime prior to 1903. The next oldest report is from 18 April 1967 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994). There are also a few winter reports of the species, including one off Jacksonville Beach 22 January 1972 (Stevenson, 1972).

Over at least the last decade (dating back to 2005), this species has been most affected by those climatic events that push the sargassum and Storm-Petrels near shore and into the mouth of the St. Johns River. Indeed, I saw my first Great Shearwater here on 3 Jul 2007, when Roger Clark, Marie Dailey and I found an injured one on the lagoon’s edge at Huguenot Memorial Park.

The Great Great Shearwater Rescue. 3 Jul 2007, Huguenot Memorial Park. Jacksonville, Florida

The happy part of that story is that we picked it up and released it on the ocean side, watching it fly back out to sea (the sad part, it probably didn’t make it).

June 2012 was the most recent such event, and Great Shearwater could be found rather easily from the Huguenot shoreline (back then, it was still called “Greater Shearwater”). I saw several from our Skiff around the eastern edge of the jetties on 22 June 2012.

On 11 June 2017, I found a single one struggling in the breakers just off Huguenot and watched as it washed up on land. I stayed with the bird for an hour and it eventually flew just back outside the breakers, and finally disappeared from view.

Great Shearwater. Huguenot Memorial Park. 11 Jun 2017

To underscore this, I bird at Huguenot on average one hundred times per year and have seen this species from shore on just three occasions, all in mid-June to early July, and in five year increments (2007, 2012, 2017). If I channel my inner Nostradamus, I’d say get thee to Huguenot in June of 2022 and 2027!

Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus
Sooty Shearwater is a much more rarely reported species, but the timing of the reported observations we do have are closely aligned with Cory’s and Great Shearwater. The earliest observations of the species come from 15 July 1957, 28 May 1967, and 20 May 1973 (Kale, 1973). I’m only aware of one report from shore in recent years and that was rather recently (June 2014). I’ve never seen this species in Duval County.

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus
There are only a handful of Manx Shearwater reports, and almost all of them occurred in the month of February. Based on those observations, I would suggest getting well offshore on a chartered vessel in the first two weeks of February.

The outliers are a specimen photographed on 30 September 2007 on Little Talbot Island State Park’s south end at the Fort George Inlet (Kratter, 2010) and another recovered offshore on 21 November 1982 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).

Most recently, one was collected just over the county line at Amelia Island State Park in Nassau County on 17 November 2015 – just a few days (in month) apart from the 1982 observation.

Audubon’s Shearwater Puffinus lherminieri
Audubon’s Shearwater are also more of a “winter species” offshore of Duval County, with almost all records coming in January and February. The earliest report I’ve found is from 21 January 1973 of a bird off Mayport (Woolfenden, 1973). Atherton and Atherton (1980) noted another bird two miles offshore on 8 August 1979, and there is one record from May in 2006.

Updated 17 June 2020.

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