Some recent eBird reports of Cliff Swallow in Duval County have prompted a few thoughts that I think are worthy of consideration. Cliff Swallows are undoubtedly annual in northeast Florida / Duval County, but they are very uncommon-to-rare and can also present identification challenges, even to seasoned observers. To put their abundance in context, they are more often missed than seen by active, experienced birders each year in the County. I look for them at the appropriate time of year and in the right habitats, and still have only seen them in 3 out of 15 years of birding here.
Main challenges in identifying Cliff Swallows begin with finding a suitable flock of swallows that allow for careful observation, and most of the time those flocks (when found) are out over pastures, dunes, and can be in “bad light”. The similarity to other species (like the exponentially more common and abundant Barn Swallow) then make for additional challenges.
For example, I was with 3 other very experienced birders this year on August 1st when one of the group identified a single Cliff Swallow out over a cow pasture. We stood there for another 15 minutes and not one of us could relocate the bird. Each of the four of us had varying levels of field experience with the species, but I can tell you I’ve observed Cliff Swallows many times and in four different states – yet was still unable to pick this individual out of the group. I’ll add that August 1st is considerably ‘early’ for the species locally – over the last two decades they routinely arrive around August 15th.
On August 2nd and 3rd, several individual birds were reported from Huguenot Memorial Park, which is the right location but about 2 weeks early. It’s not to say their presence there is impossible by any means, but it’s more likely that the inexperienced birder reporting them triggered their ID based on reports from the previous day.
I encourage everyone to get out there and study swallows, but proceed with a little caution when making the identification of Cliff Swallow – they’re very uncommon, pass through the area quickly, are usually found in large mixed flocks of similar species, and are just tough to ID for most observers in most conditions. August 15-18th at Huguenot Memorial Park over the dunes is your best bet – work the dunes running from the jetties all the way to the north end of the park.