Jacksonville is for the Birds
By Joan Rattner Heilman
Birdwatching is right up there as one of America’s favorite leisure activities and birdwatchers now number in the millions, but I doubt that many of them know that the city of Jacksonville, a metropolis of high-rises and sprawling suburbs in the northeast corner of Florida 40 miles south of the Georgia border, has become a major birding destination.
Jacksonville, the largest city by area in the continental United States, has little in common with Miami, Naples, Tampa, Palm Beach, or any other stereotypical Florida city. Fifteen minutes from the airport, its downtown urban core is brimming with trendy restaurants, bars, pubs, shops, live music venues, and the youngest population in the state. Its micro-breweries are busy winning awards and its incessant festivals fill the streets. It has a well-regarded symphony orchestra, over 30 medical facilities including one of the three Mayo Clinics in the country, a Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), a multitude of avant garde art galleries, historic neighborhoods, and frequent local art walks. It is sophisticated and “hip.”
It is also loaded with birds, both those migrating through in the spring and fall and those who are more or less permanent residents. That’s because of its moderate temperature, diverse array of habitats, and the water that surrounds and engulfs it. Situated on the Atlantic coast, the heart of the sprawling city is divided right down the middle by the St. Johns River, a wide waterway spanned by many bridges and water taxis. It has the most shoreline in the nation: 22 miles of beaches, 40 miles of the Intracoastal Waterway, acres of salt marshes, lakes, canals, creeks, swamps, and beaches, and the longest stretch of the river in the state. Topping all that off are 10 state and national parks, a national preserve, and 85,000 acres of urban parks and gardens.
On a recent visit, with the help of a knowledgeable and charming local guide, Thomas Rohtsalu (www.jaxbirding.com), who knows every natural cranny in the area, I discovered some fantastic birding sites, all within the city limits. Below are a few of them.
First, if you go, pick up the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail Guide from a visitor’s center or www.visitjacksonville.com. Take your binoculars, a bird ID book or phone app so you’ll get a better idea of what you’re seeing, sunscreen, a brimmed hat, and depending on the season and time of day, heavy-duty insect repellant. You’ll see plenty on foot but kayaks and canoes are an even better way to view birds on the inland salt marshes and along creeks and inlets.
Huguenot Memorial Park: A magnet for shore birds, this is an oceanfront city park where you can drive on the beach in some areas and park your car to swim and bask, but most of the beach and dunes are reserved for wildlife that includes plovers, curlews, terns, ibis, willets, skimmers, loons, and laughing gulls, royal gulls, and terns. Search the exposed mud flats at low tide, and the shallows for waders, shorebirds and ducks. The park includes a nesting area for shorebirds, including about 3,000 laughing gulls.
Fort George Island: A major attraction in this preserve on an ocean inlet is the Kingsley Plantation, the site of a former estate with a restored plantation house and the remains of slave quarters, but it is also a fine place to view spring and fall songbird migration. Look for warblers, painted buntings, ovenbirds, redstarts, and kingbirds. Wading birds and shorebirds like snowy egrets, ibises and clapper rails are usually rampant in the salt marshes and mudflats of the Fort George River. Ask for a trail guide at the visitor center and be prepared to walk on rugged terrain.
Big Talbot Island State Park: Located at the mouth of the St. Johns River, this is another hotspot for migrating shorebirds like avocets and stilts and roosting areas for pelicans and cormorants. Migratory songbirds pass through in fall and spring. There is plenty of territory for wandering along beaches, footpaths through scrubby woodlands, driftwood forests, salt marshes, and a boat ramp for launching kayaks, yours or rented, for paddling in the inland marshes.
More birds in town:
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, the city’s most popular attraction, is a combination zoo and botanical garden, with animal exhibits interspersed with linear and themed pocket gardens along the walkways throughout the grounds. The lush gardens and ponds draw many people to view the plantings and others to look for the many varieties of wild birds that drop in extemporarily to spend time among the warthogs, giraffes and cheetahs. Most exotic are probably the colonies of wild wood storks that hang out on the ponds and nest every year in a grove of live oak trees, but birders will find green herons, black-crowned night herons, eagles, roseate spoonbills, American coots, green-winged teal ducks, anhingas, purple gallinule, and kingfishers, along with visiting warblers, vireos, buntings, and other migrating songbirds that pass through spring and fall.
Joan Rattner Heilman, a New York travel writer is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles and columns and over a dozen books, including Unbelievably Good Deals and Great Adventures That You Absolutely Can’t Get Unless You’re Over 50.