In terms of shorebirds, we are fortunate to have some of the best prime birding locations on the east coast (and perhaps all) of Florida. Duval County has miles of coastal beaches, but it is almost not worth looking for most shorebirds on our beaches south of the St. Johns River. It is true that you’ll find Sanderlings, Willet, and Ruddy Turnstones on the over developed beaches south of Mayport, but north of the river at Huguenot Memorial Park, Fort George Inlet, and Talbot Islands State Parks is really where it’s at. These locations provide miles of virtually undeveloped, easily accessible shoreline access along with tidal mudflats that attract thousands of shorebirds of all varieties. In addition to coastal locations, Duval County has other prime spots like M&M Dairy and the Lem Turner spray fields that also attract migrant shorebirds, as noted below. All these locations (and more) have produced over 40 species of shorebirds in county history.
Black-bellied Plover Pluvialis squatarola
Black-bellied Plovers are fairly regular, if not abundant, in most seasons, but almost disappear from places like Huguenot Memorial Park in July. They come into their magnificent breeding plumage in late March and retain it through most of the summer, although most of the birds you’ll likely see in June will be in basic plumage. A visit to Huguenot on almost any day of the year will certainly yield the species; check along the family beach area, interior mudflats, and the northwest end of the park, where you can observe them doing their unique pause-and-run foraging method hunting the fiddler crabs.
They are pretty scarce on the shores of Little Talbot Island State Park, but can be found in small numbers on the beaches of the extreme north and south ends. They can be found along the sandbars of the Fort George River, so scanning from the parking lot overlooking the inlet (south end of Little Talbot Island) or from behind either the Ribault Club or Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island can be effective as well.
Another excellent location for them can be the Lem Turner spray farms at the intersection of Lem Turner and Lannie Road, but their presence there coincides with migration (March/April and August/September) and is also largely dependent on the state of the pastures (they prefer freshly mowed or tilled fields).
The oldest report in the county comes from Francis Harper, who noted 18 individuals on 22 January 1917 around the mouth of the St. Johns River (Howell, 1932, p. 223).
American Golden-Plover Pluvialis dominica
American Golden-Plover is a very, very rare migrant in Duval County and almost all reports are from the fall. The earliest record is one from the north shore of the St. Johns River near Fort George Island on 20 November 1936 (Grimes, 1944). On 23 May 1978, Bob Loftin noted a particularly late individual (Kale, 1978). The next report is from Huguenot Memorial Park in the fall of 1980 (Atherton & Atherton , 1981), followed by another rare spring report on 2 May 1981 (Kale, 1981). Nineteen were reported from Huguenot on 4 December 1982 (Hoffman, 1983). A decade passed before the next known report on 7 May 1992 (Langridge, 1992). Clark reported another rare spring occurrence from the Little Marsh Island spoil area on 24 March 1996 (Rowan, 1996).
Most of the other reports are from late August and early September: up to five at Lem Turner 31 August- 22 September 1995 (Rowan, 1995), early September – 18 November 1996 (Rowan, 1996), fall 1997 (Rowan, pers comm, 2016), 9-11 September 2000, four at Lem Turner spray fields (R. Clark); 8 September 2002, two at Lem Turner (R. Clark); 21-22 August 2008 (one each day at the Fort George Inlet during Tropical Storm Fay (R. Clark)), and 15 March 2010, which consisted of eight individuals at M&M Dairy during an exceptional shorebird year there. The latest records are from 2 December 2014 from the Blount Island area in north Jacksonville and 24 March 2017 at Dayson Basin on Little Marsh Island.
The best time and locations to search for this species is during the fall shorebird migration and at places like Mecklenburg or M&M Dairy, Lem Turner spray fields, or any other pastures or fields that attract shorebirds or hold a bit of water. I wouldn’t rule out coastal areas like Spoonbill Pond or Huguenot, but it seems less likely to encounter them at those locations.
Greater Sand-Plover Charadrius leschenaultii
There is one famous record of Greater Sand-Plover for Duval County, which marked only the second record for the Western Hemisphere. On 14 May 2009, C. Adams, D. Leary, and L. Royce first observed the bird on the mudflats on the lagoon side of Huguenot Memorial Park around 09:30 (Adams, Leary, & Royce, 2011). The Greater Sand-Plover attracted hundreds of birders from around the United States while it was observed daily from 14-26 May 2009.
Snowy Plover Charadrius nivosus
Snowy Plover is another rare but nearly annual visitor to our beaches, and is most often found on the beaches of Little Talbot Island State Park or in the Nassau Sound area of Big or Little Bird Island. On 22 Oct 2000, it was noted that one returned to the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park for many years, a trend that has continued fairly reliably through 2014 (P. Leary, personal communication, 2000). Some specific reports from those years include 7 November 2001 (Pranty, 2002), 20 October 2002, 28 December 2002 (Anderson, 2003), 8 November 2003 (Pranty, 2004), 26 December 2004 (Anderson, 2005), and 23-26 December 2005 (Anderson, 2006).
Unless traveling by boat or kayak, it is a 6 mile round trip hike or bicycle ride to that location from the northernmost parking lot at Little Talbot, thus the area is tragically under-surveyed. It is likely this species (and others) occur there with more frequency but go undetected in most seasons. Other arrival dates for this general area of north Little Talbot/Big Bird Island include 30 November 2006, 17 November 2007, 9 November 2008, 22 August 2010, and 12 November 2009.
It is also worth checking the southern most beach access at Little Talbot, specifically around the tidal pool where Snowy Plover has been recorded on 16 October 2004 and 21 August 2014. Huguenot Memorial Park has also hosted Snowy Plovers, with reports occurring there on 26 December 2004 (Anderson, 2005), 17 December 2006 (K. Dailey), 11 December 2008, and 2 January 2009. There have been no reports since 2014.
As you can see, almost all reports are from the fall season and the best times to search would be late October through November, focusing your efforts along the shores of Little Talbot Island State Park. It can be a rather pleasant bicycle ride and be sure to bring a container or bag with you since it’s also the best time of year to collect sand dollars along the shore.
Wilson’s Plover Charadrius wilsonia
Wilson’s Plover are certainly one of our treasured species in Duval County, as they are declining in numbers, present a target species for visiting birders, and have difficulties in finding suitable breeding habitat. A few pairs breed at Huguenot Memorial Park each spring / summer, but the larger numbers breed at the extreme north end of the beach at Little Talbot Island State Park. In 2014 they had a very successful breeding season at Little Talbot, and you could see up to 100 individuals in a single scope view.
Grimes (1944) noted an exceptional breeding record in 1943, when a pair successfully nested 23 miles up river from the ocean at the Clyde Line piers. Francis Harper noted about a dozen around what I believe today is Huguenot Memorial Park on 22 January 1917 (Howell, 1932, p. 219).
Semipalmated Plover Charadrius semipalmatus
Noted as “an abundant winter resident” by Grimes in 1944, this species is still found in large numbers at Huguenot Memorial Park throughout the fall and winter. As with Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone, the Semipalmated Plover can be difficult to find in June through July, but quickly reappear in August and continue gathering in number through the winter. This is a bird that can be found in small groups all along Jacksonville’s beaches, but the best places to find them are Hanna Park, Huguenot Memorial Park, Little Talbot Island, Spoonbill Pond, and Fort George Inlet.
Piping Plover Charadrius melodus
Grimes (1944) noted Piping Plover as a “fairly common winter resident” along our ocean shores, but did not indicate in what kind of abundance they occurred. I would say this species is still “fairly common” in winter – certainly at Huguenot Memorial Park and Little Talbot Island State Park, but their numbers are very low; it is rare that you’ll see more than five at a time and more often than not you’ll only see one to three individuals at a time. The earliest report of the species is from Mayport on 22 January 1917 (Howell, 1932, p. 216). High counts of the plover include twenty reported by Pat Leary on 20 November 2000 (Pranty, 2001) and thirty-eight observed by Leary in Nassau Sound on 14 March 2004 (Pranty, 2004).
Killdeer Charadrius vociferus
In 1944, Grimes wrote that he was unable to find this species breeding in the county until 1935; he then went one to speculate that they would likely become a fairly common breeding species here (Grimes, 1944). As of 2020, that is certainly true and they can be found breeding throughout the county.
The best locations to see Killdeer are also some birding hotspots you’ll likely be visiting anyway – M&M Dairy, the parking lots at Little Talbot Island State Park, Spoonbill Pond, and near the entrance station at Huguenot Memorial Park. They are very uncommon at places like Hanna Park, Theodore Roosevelt Area, and Spanish Pond; I wouldn’t expect to see them in those locations.
American Oystercatcher Haematopus palliatus
The first documented occurrence of American Oystercatcher in Duval County is from Francis Harper, who noted a pair on Talbot Island 21 January 1917 (Howell, 1932, p. 215). In 1944, Grimes noted the American Oystercatcher as “a very rare resident”, and described a nest between Fort George Inlet and the mouth of the St. Johns River found on 19 May 1931; this is undoubtedly in the dunes of what we now know as Huguenot Memorial Park. A year later, he found a nest on the southern end of Little Talbot Island State Park (Grimes, 1944). A report of thirty-seven at Fort George Inlet on 27 November 1983 (Atherton & Atherton, 1984) is a high count of the species.
As recently as 2013, this species has again successfully fledged young in the dunes of Huguenot Memorial Park, but there have been no successful nests noted on Little Talbot in recent years. As I update this account seven years later in 2020, I’m happy to report that Oystercatchers have been successfully breeding in low numbers each season at Huguenot. While I don’t agree with the park’s position on banding every fledged juvenile each year, they have done an excellent job in roping off large areas of the park during nesting season, and have completely shut down the interior of the lagoon to driving for several years.
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus
Grimes (1944, p.13) noted Black-necked Stilt as a sporadic species that he recorded in 1935, ’37, ’38, and ’41. He provided an account of searching the newly dredged areas between the Dames Point and Mayport in the early 1930’s and his suspicion of potential future breeding locations for the species but was seemingly never able to locate evidence of breeding north of Anastasia State Park in St. Johns County. Unfortunately it’s unknown whether Black-necked Stilts indeed bred in Duval County in Grimes’ day, but they certainly do in recent history; the earliest confirmed breeding dates to 1967 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).
Black-necked Stilts typically arrive each spring in early March and remain through the breeding season, departing in mid-September. They can be found with some effort at places like M&M Dairy, the Lem Turner spray fields, Mecklenburg Farm, Spoonbill Pond, or even in the marshes at White Shell Bay off Heckscher Drive. They are very occasional at Huguenot Memorial Park, Hanna Park, and Spanish Pond but should not be expected at most visits to those locations. They have had very limited success breeding at Spoonbill Pond, but do very well in more protected areas like Dayson Basin on Little Marsh Island.
On 6 August 1983, a then-record high count of fifty-six were reported on Blount Island (Paul, 1983). While that number has since been eclipsed, it is still a notable number even by today’s standards. There are a few winter records of the species including Mark Dolan’s observation of one 9-22 December 1995 at Mecklenburg Dairy Farm (Rowan, 1996). Dolan recorded another on 28 December 1996 (West, 1997) and in 2015 Bob Richter recorded one at Lem Turner 10 January 2016, but they should not be expected in the winter season.
American Avocet Recurvirostra americana
American Avocet is a species undocumented by Grimes in the early 1940’s, suggesting there were no records prior. One early county record comes from 9-13 May 1967 when the species was still uncommon-to-rare throughout the state (Stevenson, 1967). Atherton and Atherton (1984) still considered the species rare when one was reported from Blount Island on 6 August 1983. The following year, a group of twenty-seven at Blount Island on 18 August 1984 was noted as the highest total in county history, a number eclipsed tenfold on 26 December 2004, when Bob Richter observed two hundred seventy on Quarantine Island (Anderson, 2005).
It is still certainly a very difficult bird to observe each year, but they are present in low numbers in late summer and throughout the winter. They seem to favor remote and undisturbed locations such as the islands underneath the Dames Point Bridge, Dayson Basin, and Blount Island. They are reported at least once annually from Huguenot Memorial Park, with most of those observations occurring at the north end of the park in the evening, but they should not be expected there. In 2013, we observed a small group of them in Pumpkin Hill Creek at the dock at Betz-Tiger Point, but the most reliable location I can suggest is White Shell Bay off Heckscher Drive. In winter (especially January), pull off of Heckscher on the south side of the road just west of the old White Shell Bay fishcamp and scan the river at low tide. You will often find a group feeding along this protected cove that time of year.
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius
Spotted Sandpipers are a fairly common spring and fall migrant, but can be a difficult species to just go out and find. This is also another species whose seasonal occurrence doesn’t seem to have changed much; Grimes (1944, p. 10) noted them as most abundant in late July to early October and early April to May. Since the early 2000’s, they are most numerous in the county in mid-April through May, all but disappear in June, and return in August. There are a few winter reports but should not be expected in that season.
The best way to target this species is to check along the edge of inland retention ponds, boat ramps, and the edges of the marshes at low tide. Alimacani, Arlington Lions Club (near Reddie Point Preserve), Spoonbill Pond, and Cedar Point Preserve’s boat ramps are fairly reliable spots, as is the along the retaining wall running along the Fort George River behind Kingsley Plantation. If you’re at Reddie Point Preserve, check along the shoreline at the kayak launch area where they can frequently be found. The backside of Spoonbill Pond can be fruitful, and if you are birding the west side of town try the ponds around the Westside Industrial Park at the “Limpkin spot”.
Solitary Sandpiper Tringa solitaria
Solitary Sandpiper is a species noted as “a fairly common transient” in the 1920’s through the ’40’s but has been getting more difficult to find in recent years (Grimes, 1944, p.10). They have become so scarce in fact, that avid county birders may often miss seeing them in any given year.
The most “reliable” specific location I still know of is M&M Dairy during shorebird migration (early April through May), but even that is hit-or-miss in recent years (I did find one there again in 2020). Westside Industrial Park and Spoonbill Pond are certainly worth checking, but otherwise just diligently check around the edges of small retention ponds, muddy banks, and any open-area puddles you may find. Locally this species is often confused with Lesser Yellowlegs, so simply relying on eBird for observations can be tricky and any reports from Huguenot Memorial Park are especially worthy of scrutiny (I have never seen one there in many hundreds of visits).
There is a notable winter report of one bird on 11 January 1974 (Stevenson & Anderson, 1994).
Greater Yellowlegs Tringa melanoleuca
As previously noted, this text isn’t intended to provide tips on bird identification but occasionally I’m compelled to caution when difficult or common identification challenges present themselves. Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs overlap in Duval County in all seasons, numbers, and in locations and habitat, and thus they are two of the most frequently mis-identified species by beginning and experienced bird watchers alike. Please exercise caution when observing them, and if you’re not certain of the ID remember there is an eBird designation for Greater/Lesser Yellowlegs.
Grimes (1944, p. 12) noted that Greater Yellowlegs was “common winter resident” that could be found in numbers on Black Hammock Island and remarked that he had no reports between 15 May and 1 August. That has certainly changed, as Greater Yellowlegs can now be found year-round – but can still be very difficult in the heart of the summer. Most observations come along the marsh overlooks along Heckscher Drive and throughout the Timucuan Preserve (Sister’s Creek marina, Alimicani Boat Ramp, Fort George Inlet, Huguenot Memorial Park). Spoonbill Pond also remains one of the premier locations to see them year-round.
Willet Tringa semipalmata
Willet is an intriguing species to me in that both the “Eastern” and “Western” sub-species occur here, but there is little known beyond that in terms of their seasonal abundance at the sub-species level, other than Easterns are “undocumented in the United States in winter” (O’Brien, 2006). One can certainly go birding any time of year – especially along our coastal locations – and likely find a Willet, and the best place bar-none is Huguenot Memorial Park.
However, most birders stop there at the identification and so we don’t have much data to differentiate the two, despite the notion that the sub-species are “morphologically and ecologically” distinct enough to perhaps warrant separate species designation (O’Brien, 2006). For those looking for an extra challenge to their birding adventure, next time you’re observing Willets take the time to assess which sub-species you’re looking at – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with how much fun that can actually be and it may help us all one day better understand their seasonal abundance.
Lesser Yellowlegs Tringa flavipes
Grimes (1944) noted that Lesser Yellowlegs was a common migrant and rare winter species in the county. In recent decades they are fairly regular throughout the winter and scarce from the last week of May through the middle of summer. Most reports come from the marshes and coastal areas like Huguenot Memorial Park, Spoonbill Pond, or Hanna Park, but they can also be found inland at pastures that attract shorebirds from season to season (Lem Turner spray fields or M&M Dairy). Refer to comments above under Greater Yellowlegs regarding confusion of the two species, which is a common problem in birding and also in county level observations.
Upland Sandpiper Bartramia longicauda
The first documented records of Upland Sandpiper are 5 April 1925 and 12 April 1935 (Grimes, 1944, p.9). Grimes reported another on 31 March 1968 (Stevenson, 1968). It is still a very uncommon to rare spring migrant with just a few known fall reports in Duval County. Recent spring records come from 25-27 April 2020 at Westside Industrial Park (Wainwright), 31 March 2019 at M&M Dairy (Dailey), 26-27 March 2013 at M&M Dairy (Dailey), 10 April 2010 from the Arlington Area Ponds (Dailey, see Locations), and 12 April 2009 at the Lem Turner spray fields (Clark). A late spring record is dated 2 May 1981.
Fall observations include observations by Noel Wamer on 15 July 1973 (Ogden, 1973), nine on 29 July 1976 (Ogden, 1976), and a group of seven Roger Clark found on 31 August 1994 at the Lem Turner fields (Wamer and Pranty, 1995). Clark reported another group of four there on 11 September 2000.
On 7 September 2015, Bob Richter recorded one at M&M Dairy just prior to the construction of new warehouses on the existing pasture; the bird was observed through 12 September. During that period of observation, Buff-breasted Sandpipers were also present, and I found an incredibly rare (and chaseable for many) Baird’s Sandpiper. It is the only known record of Upland, Baird’s, and Buff-breasted Sandpipers occurring in the same location, at the same time, in state history.
If you’re up for the challenge, search for them at M&M Dairy or Mecklenburg Dairy Farm in late March through the second week of April, and try again late August through September at those same locations, as well as the Lem Turner fields.
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Grimes (1944, p.9) noted the “Hudsonian Curlew” as a “rather uncommon transient”, with just a single spring record and many fall observations. In recent history, Whimbrels are seen throughout April in May each year, and again starting in mid-July through October. There are also scattered (rare) observations during the winter season. There are a few reports from Helen Floyd Cooper Park and Theodore Roosevelt Area, but those are rare observations and the species should not be expected there. The most reliable place is Huguenot Memorial Park or adjacent Fort George Inlet along the sandbars. If you can’t find them there, it is worth trying the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park / Big Bird Island, or Spoonbill Pond on Big Talbot Island State Park. The high count of the species is fifty-seven reported from Huguenot by Roger Clark on 15 August 2003 (Pranty, 2004).
Long-billed Curlew Numenius americanus
Howell (1932) provides the first reported observation of Long-billed Curlew in Duval County; he noted that Alexander Gerhardt reported them around “the mouth of the St. Johns River in February, 1854”. Grimes (1944, p.9) documented an injured individual taken from around the mouth of the Trout River on 17 August 1931, where is was taken to the Jacksonville Zoo and “existed for two or three months”.
Atherton and Atherton (1980) noted one throughout the fall season in 1979 at Huguenot Memorial Park, and one reported the following year in 1980 from that location was noted as the third year in a row one lingered there (Atherton & Atherton, 1981). Peggy Powell reported two throughout the fall of 1982 and early winter of 1983 (Hoffman, 1983). Rex Rowan recorded one at Huguenot from 1 February through 7 March 1986, and other reports include March 1990 and February 1992 (Rowan, pers. communication, 2016). One spent the winter season at Little Talbot Island State Park in 1995-96 (West, 1996). Wamer (1998) noted one at Huguenot on 14 September 1997, and another was reported from 2-30 August 1999 (Pranty, 2000).
This species was an annual visitor through the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, making fall stops at Huguenot Memorial Park or the Big Bird Island area on 6-16 October 1999, 10-12 Oct 2000 (Wamer), 22 Oct 2000, 29 March 2003 (Richter), 20 Oct 2003, 24 September 2004, 6-25 September 2005 (Pranty, 2006), and 12 September 2009 (Dailey). There are a handful of other reports from late February or early March, and several more from the third week of June to mid-July, all from that same decade span. There has not been a reported observation of this species since the one Marie and I saw in September 2009 at Huguenot.
Although it isn’t a species you can target or should expect to see here, it is certainly worth keeping in the back of your mind when scoping shorebirds at Huguenot, Spoonbill Pond, or Little Talbot Island State Park – especially in fall.
Hudsonian Godwit Limosa haemastica
There are three records of Hudsonian Godwit in Duval County. The first is from “Mayport” 16 May 1998 (Pranty, 1988), a bird I presume was actually observed at neighboring Huguenot Memorial Park. The second record does come from Huguenot Memorial Park on 26 August 2011. Following Hurricane Irene’s passing off the coast of Jacksonville, Bob Richter ventured out that morning to Huguenot and reported flocks of Sooty Terns, and as the storm surge was ebbing he photographed a small flock of eight Hudsonian Godwits huddled up by the volleyball net at the base of the jetties. I recall heading out there at first light the next morning to search for them and ran into Gary Davis and Michael Brothers. Despite walking in knee deep water around the base of the interior dunes and throughout the entire park we were unable to relocate these “one day wonders”. On 20 October 2019, the third county record was observed at Spoonbill Pond and was well documented through the 26th of that month.
In terms of seasonal abundance, it’s worth noting the pattern of observations throughout the NE Florida and SE Georgia region for this very rare species: 16 Sept 2000 (Alachua County) 18 Sept 2000 (Brunswick, GA), and 19 Sept 2010 (St. Johns County). While not to be expected in any year or any season, based on these observations they seem to move through between late August and mid-September; it may be worth making the effort to check Big Bird Island and scour Huguenot Memorial Park during that timeframe.
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
There is one magnificent record of Bar-tailed Godwit in Duval County. On 2 October 1999, Roger Clark was leading a field trip at Huguenot Memorial Park when he noticed an unusual looking Godwit; upon further inspection he quickly identified it as a Bar-tailed Godwit, providing just the third state record for Florida (R. Clark, personal communication, 2007). The bird was reliably seen from 2-24 October that year by many observers.
Marbled Godwit Limosa fedoa
The earliest record of Marbled Godwit in the county is from 15 February 1869 (Howell, 1932, p. 247). It is an uncommon to rare species in the area, but up until around 2011 you could find at least one in almost any month at Huguenot Memorial Park. From 2012 through the spring of 2014 I did not record one there, a period spanning over 150 unique visits, but beginning in 2015 they have again been recorded annually at Huguenot and/or Spoonbill Pond.
There are no known observations of the species in Duval County south of the St. Johns River, which is perhaps no surprise based on availability of suitable habitat. The best places to look for them are Huguenot, Spoonbill Pond, Heritage River Road, and the Big Bird Island area at the north end of Little Talbot Island State Park, which involves a 6 mile round trip hike or bike ride from the nearest parking lot at the park.
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Ruddy Turnstone is a common shorebird almost year round, being most difficult to find in July. They can be found throughout the park at Huguenot on almost any visit, as well as along the shoreline at almost all of our coastal beach access locations. A visit to Helen Floyd Cooper Park, many of the public boat ramps, or the Jacksonville Pier will also yield them. I don’t understand the poor opinion and lack of attention this species receives among birders; it is one of our most colorful shorebirds, especially in glorious spring plumage, and is one of the most intriguing of the shorebirds to observe in terms of behavior.
Red Knot Calidris canutus
The Red Knot is a well-documented species in decline and that drastic decline in numbers has certainly been reflected in the county over the last fifteen years. Once a “common transient” in the early 1900’s, their numbers have plummeted over the last many years (Grimes, 1944, p. 12). I can recall us all lamenting the small flocks of 600-1,200 birds at Huguenot Memorial Park as recently as 12 years ago; beginning in 2014, visits to Huguenot during the fall produced single birds around the park with a high count of perhaps 35. As of 2020, finding 30 to 80 in a single flock is extraordinary and you’re more likely to find numbers of one to twenty in a group. I would encourage any and all to seek this bird soon, as I’m afraid it will be an extremely rare species in the very near future. Huguenot Memorial Park and the south end of Little Talbot Island (especially along the Fort George Inlet sandbars) are the two best locations in NE FL to observe the species.
Sanderling Calidris alba
Sanderling is very possibly our most common shorebird in northeast Florida and can be found along any beach in Duval County regardless of how developed or crowded the beach. They are present virtually year round, but can become very difficult to find the latter part of June and the early part of July. Otherwise you’re sure to encounter them at Hanna Park, Little Talbot Island State Park, Huguenot Memorial Park, or even around the Jacksonville Pier.
Semipalmated Sandpiper Calidris pusilla
Semipalmated Sandpiper is a rather common peep in spring and fall migration. In fall, they depart by 1 November and there are no verifiable winter records. Grimes (1944, p.13) noted the species as an “abundant winter resident” but it is unknown if that was accurate or due to possible confusion with the very similar Western Sandpiper. I’ve found that Semipalmated Sandpiper is very often misidentified in Duval County, especially at Huguenot Memorial Park where the species is uncommon and unlikely to be found in large numbers. The two most reliable places in recent years for them are Spoonbill Pond and Heritage River Road Wetlands, where they outnumber Western Sandpipers.
Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Western Sandpiper is a very abundant peep that can be found nearly year-round. Outside of June, one can find the species on almost any visit to Huguenot Memorial Park. Any of the other coastal areas with exposed mudflats such as Helen Floyd Cooper Park, Little Talbot Island State Park, or Cedar Point Preserve are also good locations to find them.
Least Sandpiper Calidris minutilla
Least Sandpiper is a rather common migrant and winter resident, arriving in early July and departing in late May. It is very unlikely that you’ll find one in June, but otherwise should be able to see one in virtually any other month. This species tends to favor “bare sand and mudflats along the coastal estuaries”, and thus is concentrated in the northeast section of the county (Grimes, 1944, p. 12). Favorable viewing locations include Huguenot Memorial Park, Spoonbill Pond, Little Talbot Island State Park, and Big Bird Island, and any of the exposed flats or oysterbeds such as those found around the observation tower at Theodore Roosevelt Area. As with other shorebird species, they can also be found at M&M Dairy or the Lem Turner fields when conditions are favorable.
White-rumped Sandpiper Calidris fuscicollis
Over 70 years ago, Grimes (1944, p.12) remarked that White-rumped Sandpipers were a “rare, but probably regular transient” species in Duval County and listed his only record as 15 October 1931. Then in 1973, Stevenson (1973, p. 47) remarked they were “inexplicably rare in fall” in the State of Florida. In present day I would say that the species is regular here each year but can be difficult to find due to changing suitable habitat. That is then compounded by the identification challenges the species can present to most observers, ultimately resulting in a small handful of records over the years.
White-rumped Sandpipers typically move through the region in April and May, and then again from the first week of August through mid-September. Early county reports include two noted on 27 June 1976 (Ogden, 1976), one on 3 September 1986 (Atherton & Atherton, 1987), twenty-nine in June 1997 (Paul & Schnapf, 1997), fifty-two on 9 September 2000 (Pranty, 2001), and ten in Mayport on 25 July 2003 (Powell, 2003).
M&M Dairy and the Lem Turner spray fields have hosted them when the fields are holding water, unfortunately that varies from year to year. Spoonbill Pond is another good location, but that site too has undergone conditional changes over the years. I’ve seen them at Huguenot Memorial Park and the sandbars of Fort George Inlet, as well.
The main purpose of this text isn’t to provide tips on bird identification – there are too many great references out there to provide that – but I’m compelled to say a few things about this species. In recent years I’ve had great success in observing White-rumped Sandpipers at easily accessible locations in Duval County, but when others go to view the bird they are unable to find it, only to then be seen each weekend as I return to the same site. When I’m scanning for this species, I move through the foraging shorebirds looking for an individual that is slightly larger than the other peeps or is tilted forward at a more extreme angle; my estimation is that when probing, their body is at roughly a 45-60 degree angle. Those two structural differences usually catch my before the more prominently noted field mark of “long primaries extending past the tail”, which is usually then one of the traits I use to cinch the ID.
Baird’s Sandpiper Calidris bairdii
There are five reports (one “record” with photos) of Baird’s Sandpiper in Duval County. The first was provided by Virge Markgraf on 28 August 1973 (Stevenson, 1973) and the second comes from Huguenot Park on 11 September 1993 (Wamer, 1994). The third is by Roger Clark on 30 August 2000 from the Lem Turner spray fields. On 12 September 2015, I recorded one on a recently tilled pasture at M&M Dairy while I was scanning for Upland and Buff-breasted Sandpipers that had been present for several days. It was the first verifiable county record and fortunately remained through the next day, allowing many local birders to observe it. The fifth and most recent report is of a bird I observed at Spoonbill Pond on 16 May 2020.
Baird’s Sandpiper is certainly a rare species in Florida, but I suspect that they pass through Northeast Florida more frequently than we know and simply go undetected. The vast majority of reports along Southeast Georgia and the upper Atlantic Coast of Florida are from the fall (late August through mid-September), and the timing of the Duval County reports certainly suggest the last days of August into mid-September is the time to look for them. Unfortunately due to habitat loss at prime locations like Lem Turner and M&M Dairy, they will become even more difficult to find – Spoonbill Pond is probably the best place to watch for them.
Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos
Pectoral Sandpipers are an annual uncommon migrant that can be fairly difficult to find from year to year. Although Grimes (1944, p.12) noted no spring records until 25 March 1962 (Stevenson, 1962), they now arrive in early March (sometimes as early as late February) and are usually gone by the second week of May, returning in mid-July through early October. Certainly the best time to look for them is the last three weeks of August; most reports are from that time-frame each year.
The best places to seek “Pecs” are the pastures at M&M Dairy or Lem Turner, but they can also be reliable (especially in fall migration) at Big Bird Island, Spoonbill Pond, and even in low numbers at Huguenot Memorial Park. The largest flocks of them are almost always found at the inland farms, with groups sometimes numbering in the eighties. Perhaps the highest count, however, is from 25 August 1995 following Tropical Storm Jerry, when Roger Clark observed three hundred eighty-five (Wamer & Pranty, 1996).
Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima
Purple Sandpiper is a species that Grimes did not address and thus there are no very old historical records beyond the Christmas Bird Count tallies, in which a count of one was noted as “now regular” by 1965 (Cruickshank, 1966). Until fairly recently they were still considered rare in the state and many birders came to Huguenot Memorial Park or Fort Clinch State Park (Nassau county) specifically to seek them out. They have since become much more common and are seen at various places around the peninsula.
In Duval County, they are very occasionally observed on the south end of Little Talbot Island State Park, but the only logical place to really target them in the county is around the jetties at the mouth of the St. Johns River, which is accessible at Huguenot Memorial Park or by boat. I’ve always had the best luck at Huguenot first thing in the morning, and preferably when the tide is in; under those conditions you can often find them in winter along the river side of the jetties roosting in the wrack with Ruddy Turnstones. Shortly after daybreak they often head back to the jetty rocks (which extend out to the Atlantic Ocean for over a mile) and can quickly become extremely challenging to find. While it is certainly worth checking the north side of the jetties at Huguenot (it’s not even worth trying to scan the jetties on the south side of the river from Huguenot), I have rarely seen them on that side of the rocks; they are almost always found on the side facing the river. During inclement weather or storm surges, they’ve been recorded as far “west” as where the paved road inside Huguenot turns to head towards the lagoon near Picnic Shelter #1 (the birds were recorded along the bank of the river there, not at the picnic tables).
In terms of seasonal abundance, Purple Sandpipers usually arrive the first week or two of November and remain through February; there are also a few spring records into May. Atherton and Atherton (1982) noted two arrivals the first week of November 1981 as particularly early.
A remarkable count of twenty-two birds along the Mayport jetties on 26 December 1967 was noted as “surely a new high for Florida” at the time (Stevenson, 1968), and another total of nineteen in the winter of 1972-73 from that area is also remarkable (Woolfenden, 1973). On 18 February 1979, Joe Wilson reported eighteen (Stevenson, 1979), a total probably not matched since. In recent decades, most observations are of one to three individuals but I’ve seen six to eight on a few occasions over the years. One of those occasions involved trolling both sides of the jetties on both sides of the river in a boat and tallying six – that should give you an idea of just how few individual birds you’ll be trying to find spread out over potentially several miles of rocks.
Dunlin Calidris alpina
Dunlin (or in Grimes’s time Red-backed Sandpiper) is a very common migrant and winter resident, most often found in Duval County at Huguenot Memorial Park. Dunlin arrive a little later than many of our other shorebirds, making their first fall appearance around mid-September and then remaining through the end of May. A summer observation of the species would be rather exceptional and should be well-documented; Grimes (1944, p. 13) notes a single mid-summer observation from 10 July 1938, which is the only readily available summer observation recorded for the county.
In addition to Huguenot, other suitable locations to see Dunlin include Spoonbill Pond, Heritage River Road, the pier at Betz-Tiger Point Preserve, the boat ramp at Cedar Point Preserve, and the south end of Little Talbot Island State Park.
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea
There are two Duval County records of Curlew Sandpiper, both found and photographed by Patrick Leary in the Nassau Sound area of Bird Islands / Little Talbot Island State Park. The earliest record is from 17 July 2004 at Big Bird Island, and followed a “unseasonable cold front crossing the continent from Alaska” (P. Leary, personal communication, 2014). The second record is from 20 May 2007 on Little Bird Island, which is in Nassau Sound and accessible only by vessel. Both are fantastic observations for anywhere in Florida.
Stilt Sandpiper Calidris himantopus
The first (and only) early to mid-1900’s report of Stilt Sandpiper is from 8 May 1930, on the north shore of the river (Grimes, 1944, p.13). Today, this can be a very challenging species to find each year in Duval County due to inconsistent conditions at places like M&M Dairy or Lem Turner, and loss of accessible habitat elsewhere. They arrive in very early March and can be found through May; then again from late July through early October.
As far as locations, check M&M Dairy, Spoonbill Pond, the Lem Turner area, and perhaps Big Bird Island. There are several reports from Helen Floyd Cooper Park over the years, but no records from that location, and there are no substantiated reports from Huguenot Memorial Park. I personally can’t recall seeing one here in salt or brackish water; all my observations have been at flooded fields or shallow freshwater ponds.
Buff-breasted Sandpiper Calidris subruficollis
Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a very rare but seemingly annual migrant in Duval County, with observations reported at least once every three to five years since the first documented observation of six individuals on 12 September 1980 (Atherton & Atherton, 1981). Clark noted one from 27-31 August 1994 (Wamer & Pranty, 1995), and five were reported at Lem Turner spray fields 20 August through 22 September 1995 (Wamer & Pranty, 1996). Three were recorded at Huguenot following Tropical Storm Jerry on 25 August (Rowan, 1995). A record of eighteen recorded by Clark on 9 September 2000 certainly still stands today (Pranty, 2001).
Most observations occur in fall and are scattered across the county. Through the mid-1990’s and into the early 2000’s most reports came from the Lem Turner spray fields in late August and early September. Since 2010, most of the observations come from the eastern part of the county including a small flock of eight at Huguenot Memorial Park on 28 August 2011. On 7 September 2015, I found two at M&M Dairy while searching for a reported Upland Sandpiper; they remained through September 13th to the delight of many observers. The most recent record is from Dayson Basin on 3 October 2017.
Ruff Calidris pugnax
There is one unverified report and five verified records of Ruff in Duval County. On 8 Sept 2007, C. Wyatt was leading a group of birders on a visit to Huguenot Memorial Park where they identified an adult Ruff in “winter plumage” (R. Clark, personal communication, 2007). No photographs were obtained, and the bird was not relocated despite efforts made throughout that afternoon, evening, and next morning.
On 10 February 2015, an adult female was photographed in Dayson Basin, a dredge disposal site just north of the St. Johns River, about four miles inland from the Atlantic Coast. The bird was found during a coordinated survey within a restricted military area, so unfortunately no one was able to go view this magnificent addition to the Duval County list. On 6 October 2015, the same survey team led by John Martin beautifully recorded another Ruff in the same spoil area, marking just the second county record.
On 3 May 2016, I recorded one at Spoonbill Pond associating with a large group of Dowitchers. The bird remained through 8 May, and was the first “chaseable” Ruff in county history.
More recently, Martin’s team recorded another one in Dayson Basin on 8 August 2017, and on 25 August 2017 Dave Foster and I recorded a different individual in that same location.
Short-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus griseus
Grimes noted the Short-billed Dowitcher as a common winter resident, arriving in mid-August and remaining through mid-May, with no June or July records (1944, p. 13). Today, the species can be found year round, although they are still much less abundant in June and July. Their range is still rather limited to the coastal mudflats along the eastern part of the county, and like many other shorebirds, the most reliable place to see them is Huguenot Memorial Park, Spoonbill Pond, and the Fort George Inlet area.
Long-billed Dowitcher Limnodromus scolopaceus
Long-billed Dowitcher is perhaps one of our most curious shorebirds due to the complexity in identifying them and the very limited accessible habitat. They are certainly a winter resident and are found in restricted areas on the annual Christmas Bird Count, but are very scarcely seen in accessible areas like M&M Dairy. They are occasionally reported from Huguenot Memorial Park, but never with photographic support and are most certainly mistaken with Short-billed Dowitchers.
The best places I can suggest looking for the species during spring and fall migration (and winter to a lesser degree) is Spoonbill Pond and the Lem Turner spray fields. Specifically, take Lem Turner north to Lannie Road, then take a right. A little ways down you’ll encounter a church on the right; either park in the church lot or on the shoulder of the road opposite the church and scan the fields for shorebirds. Long-billed Dowitchers are commonly found there among Killdeer, blackbirds, European Starling, Cattle Egret, and a variety of other shorebirds.
It is confounding to me that one “prominent” local birder has grossly over-reported the species in recent years and supports his observations with a single field mark – the “hunchbacked” appearance noted in a Sibley guide. The casualness with which he’s reported this species makes it obvious he’s not studying the birds or trying to actually identify them, and unfortunately the preponderance of the reports has led other locals to likewise report them frequently. I implore any birdwatchers to really study up on the dowitcher complex, and there is a magnitude of great literature available on the proper identification of the species.
Wilson’s Snipe Gallinago delicata
Wilson’s Snipe typically arrive around early October, with a few reports from late August or into September. They remain through the winter and are usually departed by the second week of April. They can be a difficult species to find and prefer very moist or wet pastures and fields. There are several areas around the Cedar Point Road area worth checking, including the Tidewater subdivision, Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park, Sheffield Regional Park, and M&M Dairy. Hanna Park and Spanish Pond are two other areas worth checking.
American Woodcock Scolopax minor
Grimes (1944, p. 8) noted the American Woodcock as a “permanent resident, rare at all seasons”, and the earliest documented breeding record in the county comes from 9 March 1877 (Howell, 1932, p.225). On 4 March 1933, Grimes (1944, p.8) flushed an individual from a brood of four young near Whitehouse, on the extreme western part of Duval County. In the winter of 1971-1972, Rita McLain and Fred Wetzel reported “remarkably high counts” of Woodcocks, ranging from 30-60 birds at a time (Stevenson, 1972).
The Woodcock is still a very difficult species to find in the county, and most current records come from Betz-Tiger Point Preserve in the winter. Cedar Point Preserve used to be a reliable spot, as well as what is now the Tidewater subdivision off Cedar Point Road (R. Clark, personal communication, 2007). I encountered one on Fort George Island in March 2014, and I know of at least one other observation from Fort George some years previous. Grimes noted at least two nests in the southwestern part of the county, and there is still a considerable amount of suitable habitat there worth trying in very early spring at dawn or dusk.
The Betz-Tiger Point spot was very reliable until around 2013, and we used to observe fleeting glimpses of them almost every year on the Christmas Bird Count. We’d arrive before dawn or right before dusk, park outside the locked gates, and walk the dirt road into the park. The woodcocks would silently fly up or across the road in the fading light, providing the briefest of glimpses. Many observers made the effort over the years, only to lose focus and check their watch or start star gazing, talking, or becoming otherwise distracted – it was usually at that precise moment one went whizzing by.
Since 2015, I’ve only seen two in the county, both of which were very unexpected encounters. The first was on 6 March 2016 at Little Talbot Island State Park, and another later that year on 19 November 2016 at Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park.
Wilson’s Phalarope Phalaropus tricolor
Wilson’s Phalarope is the more common of the phalaropes and the only one you should really anticipate seeing onshore. They are annual migrants through Northeast Florida, with most observations occurring in late August through October. A single bird observed by Roy Edwards at Mayport on 21 May 1966 set a late date record for the peninsula (Cunningham, 1966). Three more were noted at Blount Island on 29 August 1980 by Peggy Powell (Atherton & Atherton, 1981), and Rex Rowan observed two of them in a spoil area on Black Hammock Island on 30 August 1987 (R. Rowan, pers comm, 2016; Atherton & Atherton, 1988). Pranty (2000) included two from Black Hammock Island on 13 May 2000 on the seasonal report, and Powell (2001) recorded two at Spoonbill Pond on 24 July 2001.
There is no reliable spot to observe them, but Spoonbill Pond presents perhaps the best opportunity today with records coming from there on 6 Aug 2001 (Wamer) and periodically throughout the early part of that decade. The other aforementioned records are presumed to be from spoil areas that are restricted and off limits to today’s birders.
It’s perhaps worth noting that the earliest fall report of the species is from 15 Jul 2001 at Spoonbill Pond, and the most recent record is 31 Aug 2014 by Clark and Dailey, a bird recorded in Dayson Basin.
Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus
Red-necked Phalarope is a mostly pelagic species that is very occasionally found on shore, most often during tropical storm conditions. The earliest known record is from 21 October 1967 in the spoil area on Black Hammock Island (Robertson and Ogden, 1967). Six were reported from Little Talbot Island State Park following a storm on 28 May 1972 (Ogden, 1972), and on 15 September 2001 following Hurricane Gabrielle, Clark reported a notable flock of one hundred forty-two of them from Fort George Inlet (Pranty, 2002). During Tropical Storm Fay on 22 August 2008, Clark, Marie, and I saw flocks totaling one hundred eighty-five birds coming in to roost in the inlet just north of the bridge across from Alamacani Boat Ramp. Recent records include a single bird photographed by Bob Richter on 22 May 2009 at Huguenot Memorial Park, and five photographed in Dayson Basin on 3 October 2017.
This species should not be expected in the county unless you get offshore in May or August/September.
Red Phalarope Phalaropus fulicarius
Red Phalarope is an almost exclusively pelagic species that I have yet to encounter in Duval County, even while “storm birding”. There are a handful of offshore reports and most observations are from January and February. The earliest report of the species is of twenty-two birds seen off the shore of Jacksonville Beach on 16 February 1967, an observation Stevenson (1967) noted as the first Duval County record. On 22 January 1972, up to one hundred were noted offshore by Virge Markgraf (Stevenson, 1972). The next observation came a few years later on 21 January 1973 in which nineteen birds were reported (Woolfenden, 1973). On 2 January 2000, Roger Clark tallied fourteen offshore of Mayport (West & Anderson, 2000).