Instead of watching the final week of NFL Football, Dee and I went up to Jacksonville so Dee could get a better look at Snowy owl (we saw the head of one last year in coastal Georgia) and hopefully get Harlequin duck and Snow bunting. We were reading reports of the weather and other birders' success via Facebook and email on my iPhone; you kids don't know how easy you've got it. Weather was extremely doubtful for the buntings. High winds and rain wouldn't likely affect the duck and owl. Traffic was heavy on I-95 on this, the last Sunday of the year. Fortunately, nobody got stupid in the northbound lanes. Several accidents snarled traffic in the southbound lanes.
We arrived first at the Little Talbot Island where the Snowy owl was visible from A1A as we crossed the inlet past Huguenot Memorial Park. We drove all the way up to the entrance of the park and all the way back down to the last parking lot before walking across the beach to the crowd of birders and photographers watching the owl. Lots of dark markings make me think it is an immature female (females and young birds are darker than males and older birds) although I have little experience with this species. We spent some time watching the bird as is sat on an island exposed by the low tide.
Since we were right there near the Snow buntings at Huguenot Park, we decided to check for them before heading to the slam dunk Harlequin duck at Fort Clinch State Park. We got out to the area where they have been seen and found a parking lot that was reasonably dry and set out. Dee had to cover the camera to avoid the rain that waited for us to get as far from the car as possible. We heard from other birders where the birds were last seen, around 10:30 and the stretch of dunes where they were found. Incidentally, this was where Andy and I saw a Lapland longspur many years ago. Wind and rain, as well as the vast extent of habitat made our attempt somewhat hopeless, but we had to try. This is one of my favorite birding parks, and I was glad to get back, even if the weather was not so welcoming. We left without our quarry.
Fort Clinch State Park is another of my favorite parks in Florida. I camped here, what seems like 100 years ago now, in summer and found 26 singing male Painted buntings throughout the park. Painted buntings are quite abundant breeders along the coast from Anastasia State Park up through North Carolina. Having grown up seeing Painted buntings breeding in old orange groves in north Brevard County and Merritt Island NWR, it seems weird to see them sitting atop Wax myrtles and other shrubs in the sand dunes of NE Florida.
The pier, where Andy Bankert and I got Long-tailed duck and Iceland gull on an epic birding weekend that also included Lapland longspur and Harris's Sparrow back in the day when Andy still birded with me, was our destination. I still remember approaching the pier one year in late May and finding five singing male Painted buntings in the back dunes. The buntings had left for the winter, but our little buddy, the Harlequin duck was a welcome, if slightly less colorful replacement. I was keeping track of all the birds for my eBird checklist and hoping to find one of the Surf scoters reported before, for my Nassau list, when I spied the adult male Harlequin duck with a female Black scoter about 200 m north of the middle of the pier. As we watched, and Dee got video, the birds drifted SE toward the end of the pier and eventually put on a show, diving and feeding on the edge of the rock jetty. I have seen two Harlequin ducks on Florida in the past, both at Sebastian Inlet, one was an immature male, the other an adult female. This was my first adult male. I noted the tail sticks up like a Ruddy duck when the bird is sitting in the water. The stripe on the head is actually raised up like a crest. It looks like a little circus duck with all the colors, spots, and stripes.
Without much daylight left and Dee facing the prospect of work, we decided to head on home from here. We stopped at Egans Creek Park to check the marshes for Virginia rail and Sora for my Nassau list. No such luck.
To prove that it is not all about birds, we stopped at The Loop Pizza Grill for some amazing pizza before heading home.
It was a great day to see some really rare birds and meet FB and email friends in 3D.