Seaton Creek Historic Preserve
2145 Arnold Road
Parking: Free; there is no admission fee for this park. The parking lot is an ample dirt lot with no designated spaces and no concrete pads for wheelchair access.
Trails: Primitive, mostly well cut and maintained. Some have high grasses and numerous spider webs crossing the path. Trails are marked, but there are no additional maps once you leave the parking lot. Wear comfortable walking/hiking shoes, preferably water resistant especially if you’re visiting in the morning when the grasses are still moist from dew.
Facilities: None. There are no restrooms, no port-o-let, and no water fountains or sources. There is a trail map posted at the kiosk at the parking lot (no paper copies). There are a few benches throughout the trails. I had decent 3G internet access on my phone, using the Sprint network despite the remoteness of this park.
The Dailey Birder’s Tips: If you wear eyeglasses, bring them in addition to your sunglasses. The trails take you into some dense woods where you’ll want your regular eyeglasses. Also pack some water and jerked beef or a Lil’Chub for a snack – it’s easy to spend several hours hiking these trails. There are no open vistas to scan, so there is no need to carry a scope. The marsh overlook is over a 2 mile hike each way, so think carefully about what equipment and weight you want to carry.
Target Species: Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Hooded Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireo all breed on property. It’s worth searching for Kentucky Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Northern Bobwhite, American Woodcock, and Virginia Rail in appropriate season(s). In winter, search for American Kestrel, Chipping, Field, Swamp, Song, Savannah, White-crowned, and even Fox Sparrow.
Seaton Creek Historic Preserve is an 840 acre park that opened on 3 March 2014 in northern Duval County. Marie and I first visited the park on 26 July 2014 to check specifically for Acadian Flycatchers. This is the area of the county that has been historically good for them, and I believe it’s in the general area that Sam Grimes used to find nesting Swainson’s Warblers. I’ll provide some details below, but to cut to the chase – we got our target bird on our first visit, surely a good omen!
There are over 5 miles of trails, including the “Long Cut” trail, “Houston Creek Trail”, “Legacy Loop”, and several miles of service roads. The Legacy Loop is marked red on the map, and is at the north end of the Houston Creek trail. The trails are fairly primitive in most areas and it’s easy to get off the beaten path; look for the painted trees to stay on the trails, they’ve done an excellent job marking them on both sides of a tree every 50 yards or so.
Bird the parking lot for owls and nightjars at dawn and dusk. I haven’t tried it yet, but this should be an excellent location for Eastern Whip-poor-will in March. Take the trail head from the parking lot and you’ll soon be in palmetto scrub and pine forest reminiscent of Spanish Pond or Pumpkin Hill (but less sandy). This short section of the trail should be excellent for Gray Catbirds and sparrows in winter; in our summer visit we were mobbed by Tufted Titmouse, White-eyed Vireos and Eastern Towhee. I also think this spot could yield a Dark-eyed Junco in winter or early spring.
When you exit that short stretch, the trail hooks back up with the service road for a short distance making for easy walking; this is an excellent spot to hear and see pairs of Summer Tanagers in spring and summer. This area starts to be a little more deciduous with some low wetlands on each side of the road. You’ll cross a little creek that could be good for waterthrushes; all we found in our July visit was a 5-6 foot Cottonmouth swimming in the water and a large group of honey bees on the outside of one of the dead trees. Keep walking and at 0.45 miles in you’ll see a wooden bench where the area directly behind it looks perfect for winter sparrows, kestrel, and who knows – perhaps a western flycatcher! Make your way through that and pick up the Houston Creek trail again, or you can veer right and follow the service road that will take you to the other end of Houston Creek trail.
The Houston Creek trail from here quickly gets pretty primitive, so remember it is marked with yellow paint and follow the path, which is often overgrown. It’s flat and you shouldn’t turn any ankles, but it is rife with spider webs. After a while, you’ll come to my favorite part of the park, and what may become one of my favorite spots in Duval County. This trail leads you through high canopy, deciduous forest with low bottomlands full of sweet gum, oak, and hickory trees, and wet undergrowth. We started remarking that it’s great habitat for Acadians, ground warblers, and cuckoos when a Yellow-billed Cuckoo started calling on queue. The trail turns pretty abruptly at one point where there is an old camouflaged tree house / deer stand; continue on about 100 yards and you’ll cross an area of very wet, dark mud – this area is very open with lots of leaf litter – perfect for the ground warblers and we heard the first of three Acadians calling at this point. About 100-200 yards further up the trail, we recorded two more Acadians calling.
The trail opens up and intersects with the service road again, and if you turn left (north) you’ll soon be crossing along Houston Creek. We had a female Wood Duck here, and the area looks absolutely perfect for breeding Prothonotary and Hooded Warblers, and possibly – just possibly – Swainson’s Warbler. There is water on both sides of the road and the woods consist of oaks and old cypress trees, and there is an abundance of aquatic vegetation in the seemingly unpolluted waters.
About 100 yards up the service road, you’ll see Houston Creek Trail again on the right and that will take you through more pine forest and eventually back into coastal oak and sweet gum hammocks, where you’ll have a chance to scan absolutely pristine marsh overlooks and listen for Virginia Rails in winter. These marshes appear almost totally undisturbed and are what I imagine “old Florida” looked like hundreds of years ago.
Legacy Loop Trail: I haven’t hiked this trail yet, but it looks like a managed young pine forest and would be a lot of hiking for not much payoff in birding habitat. I’ll probably hike it at some point, but don’t expect much in terms of birds.
Service Road: If you follow the service road all the way back from Houston Creek, you’ll go through mixed pine forest where Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, and Carolina Chickadee are abundant. In winter, this looks like excellent habitat to find a rare-in-county Red-breasted Nuthatch or Golden-crowned Kinglet.
Another strategy is to bird the service road all the way to the back of the property early in the morning, avoiding the Houston Creek trail at the beginning. This allows for comfortable walking in the more open areas before the sun is really up, and will allow you to use the more dense areas of Houston Creek as shade on the hike back. If you take this approach, it’s .45 miles to the first bench from the parking lot; just beyond the bench on the right is the 90 degree turn on the service road. This corner is active and worth birding for a bit; in a recent late July visit we had an (early) American Redstart, several Northern Parulas, Summer Tanagers, and other small land birds. Follow the service road and at 1.15 miles into your hike you should start hearing Brown-headed Nuthatches. At 1.78 miles, there will be another bench for a quick rest and at 2 miles you’ll come to the aforementioned Houston Creek trail leading to the marshy overlooks.