Summary of the Spring Season
1 Mar – 31 May 2017
Sight-only observations are considered “reports”. Those supported by verifiable evidence (photographs, video or audio recordings, or specimens) are called “records.”
After a few years of significant numbers, Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have declined again this year making them very scarce and localized in spring and summer and almost unheard of in fall/winter. A high count of just four birds came from Lem Turner spray fields on 13 May; this is the only somewhat reliable spot for them in the entire county.
A late Gadwall was recorded 3 May at Huguenot Memorial Park. Other notable waterfowl include up to three American Black Ducks and one Canvasback that remained at Perdue Pond Wildlife Area through 5 March where they spent the winter. A young male Common Eider delighted many at Huguenot and as far up river as the Mayport Ferry from 6 May through the end of the season.
Reports of Northern Bobwhite came expectedly from Pumpkin Hill Preserve State Park and Branan Field Wildlife Area, but two from Ringhaver Park on 15 April were a bit of a surprise.
Horned Grebes were relatively scarce through the winter, so six at Little Talbot Island State Park on 19 March provided a nice record. A single Magnificent Frigatebird passed over Hanna Park on 27 May; this is a species that is only reported about once per year.
An American Bittern was photographed at Taye Brown Regional Park 29 March; a subsequent report of the bird after that remains unsubstantiated. The Least Bittern at Imeson Center was first recorded 19 May; they are known to breed in the small pond there. Another was recorded at Hanna Park’s lake on 30 May.
Two Reddish Egrets were recorded at Heritage River Road Wetlands beginning 14 May. These wetlands were recently developed by the Army Corps of Engineers as mitigation for the work they’re doing across the St. Johns River to extend the “little jetties” and backfill the marsh there. A Glossy Ibis was recorded at Hanna Park’s lake on 2 April, and another was reported from Spoonbill Pond on 18 April. So far, this species is more scarce this year than in recent years.
Swallow-tailed Kites arrived on time in the last week of February and Mississippi Kites followed two months later in the last week of April. Both species have been confirmed breeding in the county this season.
Perhaps the biggest news of the year was a single Purple Gallinule photographed in Eastport on 29 May, marking the first time in many decades that the species was recorded in the county during breeding season. Follow-up visits to re-find the bird have proven unsuccessful.
American Coots are limited breeders in the county and there was only one report of the species after the end of April. Many of their breeding ponds along highway 9A were “cleaned out” by the Department of Transportation last year, effectively destroying the suitable habitat.
Sandhill Cranes continue to breed in very small numbers off New World Avenue, and this year on May 4th just the second confirmed breeding area in the county was discovered off 9A and Baymeadows Road amidst considerable construction.
Black-necked Stilts arrived the second week of March and could be found regularly at Spoonbill Pond and Heritage River Road Wetlands; a high count of 40 came from Dayson Bason on 7 April.
American Avocets are a pretty tough species to find in any season and the only reports this spring came from Dayson Basin where an incredible 350 were estimated on that 7 April outing.
650 Semipalmated Plovers at Dayson that same morning provided a regional high count, as did over 1,200 Least Sandpipers. A very rare American Golden-Plover was recorded at Dayson Basin on 24 March but was not relocated during the visit there on 7 April. Only one Marbled Godwit was recorded this season and came from Huguenot Memorial Park on 25 March. The Godwit was recorded the following day but not after.
Red Knots are continuing to decline; just ten years ago it was easy to see flocks of up to 2,000 at Huguenot in the spring, this year the high count was just 77 on 6 April. I found Stilts Sandpipers in two locations – Dayson Basin and Spoonbill Pond. The eighteen counted at Dayson on 7 April may well be an all-time high count for the county, and there were just four left there on a subsequent visit 15 May. The other Stilt Sandpiper was found 30 April and continued through 13 May. White-rumped Sandpipers can be tricky to find and even trickier to identify for many, but I managed to find them in four locations this spring: Dayson Basin, Heritage River Road Wetlands, Haulover Creek, and Spoonbill Pond. The earliest was on 6 May at Spoonbill Pond, where it was also the largest group of them with five individuals. They were gone by 27 May.
A single Pectoral Sandpiper was recorded at Hanna Park from 2-9 April and was quite cooperative to anyone interested; inexplicably that was only four people though. It is baffling that more birders didn’t seek out this bird. Another Pectoral was reported from Spoonbill Pond 21 April.
An injured Glaucous Gull hung around the Mayport boat ramp from 8 March through the 22nd, and I recorded a second Glaucous at Huguenot Memorial Park on 15 April. The Mayport bird had an injured leg; the Huguenot bird did not.
Gull-billed Terns are still a treat when you can find them anymore, so a pair I found at Heritage River Road Wetlands 14-30 May provided a nice opportunity for many. Other observations include one at Huguenot (8 April), one at Spoonbill Pond (30 April), three at Dayson Basin (15 May), three at Little Talbot Island (19 May), and the only other one found by another observer at Hanna Park on 25 April. There were scattered reports of Caspian Tern but only two of them were supported by photographs. This is a pretty uncommon species in spring and to provide some perspective on that I still haven’t seen one here this year. I suspect many of the reports are of mistaken Royal Terns but there is no way to determine that for certain – and without photographic support it is hard to “prove a negative”. I remain skeptical of most of the reports.
Eastern Whip-poor-wills have a small window in which they can be heard singing in northeast Florida, and I found two as early as 12 March this year on Fort George Island. One was reported from Betz Tiger Point Preserve 17 March and two more from Julington-Durbin Preserve 22 March. Those are the only known reports this season for the species.
A Monk Parakeet observed at an Atlantic Beach feeder 3 March was undoubtedly an escaped pet.
Eastern Wood-Pewees are rare in spring and are very limited breeders in Duval County. A credible report came from Bolles School campus 2-8 May; a couple other reports lacked any details. Acadian Flycatchers breed in the “Thomas Creek corridor” that includes Seaton Creek Preserve. I recorded three singing on Thomas Creek 22 April during a kayaking excursion; these are the earliest Acadians recorded in county history. Gray Kingbirds are rarely found outside of Mayport NAS, but one was recorded 20 April on Blount Island and another near the entrance to Spanish Pond on 7 May.
There was only one notable swallow observation; a single Cliff was reported from Spoonbill Pond 5 May. Cliffs are rare in spring and are usually best found the second and third weeks of August.
Most thrush species are rare in spring, so seeing a variety of them and in higher than normal numbers was one of the season’s highlights. Up to eight Veery were reported at Fort Caroline National Memorial 26 April where they could be found through 7 May. Gray-cheeked Thrushes were reported beginning 26 April at Reddie Point Preserve and four at Fort Caroline 7 May was remarkable. Swainson’s Thrushes moved through 7-10 May with a handful of observations coming from the Arlington area. A single Swainson’s graced a southside yard from 7-9 May. One Wood Thrush observation consisted of a record from 12 May in an Arlington backyard.
Twenty-four species of warblers this spring was again lackluster, but may be the new normal as species continue to decline. Just three to five years ago spring warbler species numbered twenty-seven to twenty-nine but the last couple years have provided twenty-two and now twenty-four, despite there being more birders and increasing numbers of reported observations (mainly via eBird). This trend is perhaps worthy of scrutiny and more scientific study.
Regardless, warbler highlights this season included three reports of Tennessee (all from Reddie Point Preserve, 26 April-10 May), a single Nashville photographed at Reddie Point 24 March, up to twenty singing Hooded Warblers along Thomas Creek on 22 April, multiple Magnolias at Reddie Point and Fort Caroline from 5-13 May, two very late Yellow Warblers 6-7 May, a lone Chestnut-sided at Reddie Point on 5 May, and one Black-throated Green on 6 May. Despite many efforts to record Swainson’s Warbler at last year’s suspected breeding area in north Jacksonville, we were unable to detect any this year. The area had recently been impacted by a small forest fire that was still smoldering on the first visit, so that may well have impacted the species interest in the area this year.
Bachman’s Sparrows continue to be localized to the three Duval County locations, and a high count of twenty singing came from Branan Field Wildlife and Environmental Area on 2 April. The “marsh sparrows” continued to provide good viewing / photograph opportunities at Sawpit Creek Boat Ramp, and I’m already looking forward to taking my new 500mm lens there next fall.