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Christmas Trip 2003

Part 3: Fort Clinch State Park

All photographs © 2003 Mary Beth Stowe

Had another pretty but uneventful day driving to Pascagoula (except for a slowdown along the Sam Houston Parkway and outside Biloxi where they were doing some construction). Actually hit a parking lot on the west side of Houston going in, but it wasn’t bad and it was definitely worth taking the Parkway! The swamp near Baton Rouge sure looks different this time of year, and I thought of fellow artist Doug Pratt when I passed LSU!

Hit the exit for Shepard State Park about quitting time, so found the Best Western in Gautier, got a room, then wandered around trying to find the park! The lady directed me down the launch road, where I picked up a handful of trip (and state) birds, best of which was a White-throated Sparrow! Boy, that place really reminded me of Five Sisters in Belize!

Had frog legs at a nice seafood restaurant in a mobile home park, then crashed at the hotel where I called my friend Melanie in Jacksonville to make plans for birding Saturday. She wasn’t home, but called back while I was watching an interview with Saddam Hussein, and sounded like she wanted to come up to the airport Holiday Inn where I was planning on staying, have breakfast, and go to Okeefenokee! Only trouble was, I didn’t know exactly how to get to the NWR, but we would see. 

It was another lovely day driving east, and I was again encouraged to wait until I was truly hungry, then don’t eat too much (which is not easy to do when you’re traveling). Stopped at a little place called Deep Creek Conservation Area for my walk (seeing as, even with losing an hour, we were gonna arrive in Jacksonville early), which is right on the edge of Osceola NF. The place was beautiful, but dead as a doornail, but I got a good workout as the trail I thought would loop back to the highway didn’t! (Shoulda looked at the map...) So we got in to Jacksonville fine after that (got a little turned around at the construction), and what a place! Eating just a little went out the window when they had roast duck for a special; I wrapped half of it and stuck it in the cooler, then got a chintzy souvenir mug to replace the one I broke...

Melanie called back with a virus, so we opted to have dinner and leave it at that, so I went to Fort Clinch State Park with every intention of hitting a few additional Jax areas, but I ended up spending the whole day there! Melanie made a good choice to stay home: it was frigid out there all day, especially first thing out on the pier! But I’m getting ahead of myself: the place was closed when I got there, so I went to the beach to watch the sunrise and see if any shorebirds were around. A big flock of skimmers and gulls was on the shore; the latter was mostly Laughing, but with fewer numbers of Ringbills and fewer yet of Herring, along with a handful of Forster’s Terns. Scoping the ocean produced a distant Gannet, which I was happy to get! Boat-tailed Grackles made noise on the sand, and over at the potties was a flock of Fish Crows. From the relative shelter of the ladies’ room came the persistent song of a Collared Dove (found them later)!

       

Dawn on a Jacksonville beach finds a mob of birds, mostly Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls

            

Left:  Ring-billed Gull (1st-year)  Center:  Adult Ring-billed Gull with Forster's Terns (also right)

     

Adult (left) and 1st-year American Herring Gulls

              

Male (left and center) and female (right) Boat-tailed Grackles: the further north you go along the coast, the paler their eyes get! 

By that time the park was open, so got a map and bird list from the nice ranger (who also gave me a Florida Birding Trail brochure).  The BBB suggests the pier and nature trail, so we headed straight to the pier where, as I said, it was frigid; I figured it would be a miracle if I didn’t come down with an ear infection or something (which I didn’t, thankfully) cuz I was not protected at all! But the checklist promised Purple Sandpipers (which I think is inaccurate—the book says they’re a vagrant here) so off we went. And there were large flocks of turnstones and Sanderlings fluttering around the rocks and trying to stay sheltered, along with mostly Herring and a few Great Black-backed Gulls. But one young bird (probable 2nd-year) looked like a Lesser to me, and sure enough, in a large flock on shore coming back were at least two adult Lesser Blackbacks! That was worth freezing for! Another treat was an Oystercatcher preening on the beach!

                     

Left:  Entrance road to Fort Clinch State Park.  Right:  The pier is worth checking out for rocky shorebirds and gulls. 

                    

Young gulls can be maddening: the bird on the left is undoubtedly a young Great Black-backed, but the one on the right was smaller and slimmer, leading me to wonder if I had a Lesser Black-backed.  An obvious 1st-year Great Black-backed Gull is on the right.

            

Lesser Black-backed Gulls from Europe have become increasingly common as winter visitors to the east coast; they are smaller and slimmer than Great Blackbacks and have yellow legs and pale eyes.  In the center and right photos, the Lesser BB is only slightly larger than the Laughing below it; in the right photo, note the much larger Herring Gulls in back of it.

From there I cruised around the pier area where one of the campgrounds was, and found a feeding flock with a Catbird in it. I had seen a kiosk on the way in and, thinking that was the nature trail, hiked it, but it was actually part of the main hiking/biking trail that runs the length of the park (the parking area actually overlooks the marsh). It was pretty narrow, and I couldn’t help but think that any bikers taking this thing were pretty gutsy! Found the right trail after that (past the pier turnoff), a loop which was a perfect length and very scenic with lots of bogs, but birdwise just had Butterbutts, a couple of Cardinals, and a Hermit Thrush (BBs were all over the park).

                               

Marsh bordering the park and hiking/biking trail that ran the length of the park. 

                                                  

L-R:  Two shots of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (a.k.a. Butterbutt), Hermit Thrush, and Cardinal among the holly   

I think from there I went to the very end where the actual fort was, and checked out the beach access areas—nothing except a trawler coming in with a ton of gulls and pelicans behind it! Went back to the "bird observation spot" near the pier and took the boardwalk down to the beach, where a group of Savannah Sparrows popped up, along with several Palm Warblers! At the beach I scoped a few more Gannets, then walked down to the gull flock which was now in better light; got some good Royal Terns, but the Lesser Blackbacks had left. On the way back to the car discovered a shelter where they had feeders up; had a few Butterbutts and Cardinals, but in time also a Ground Dove and Song Sparrow.

  

Views of the actual fort and beach

            

Center:  A fishing boat comes in with its attendant seabirds!  Right:  the beach boardwalk.

                                               

Left and center:  Palm Warblers.  Right:  Savannah Sparrow

                                     

Now that we're at the pier from ground level, we can get a better look at that flock!

                    

Note the difference in wing pattern between the Laughing Gull (left) and the Ring-billed Gull (right)

           

Left:  Black Skimmers.  Center and right:  Royal Terns

Birds at the feeders...

                           

Common Ground Dove and Song Sparrow

Went back to the fort where I wanted to try the other trailheads I found: the first one went alongside the dunes and the other campground and took you to the beach—the perfect length! Birdwise ran into another flock that was terrific: in addition to the Butterbutts had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Tufted Titmouse, Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo, then at the eleventh hour a stunning Yellow-throated Warbler! The Lord said I should be reading the plaques, too, so I did, and learned quite a bit about the local vegetation, like the fact that only the female holly bushes bear fruit!

                       

Along the Dunes Trail, the trees grow right in the sand, and on the other side of the dune is the Atlantic!

At the other end of the parking lot I took another trail that confused me cuz you cross a road and you feel like you’re looping back around, but you’re not—it’s the road to the campground you cross, not the main road! That one was dead but the other trail across the street was more productive with an upset Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpecker, and what I’m sure must have been a Pileated whanging away on a big tree, but I just couldn’t find him. That trail is narrow and overgrown in spots as well, yet bikers are allowed on that trail, too, which is really gutsy! (In fact, what bikers I ran into had to stop periodically and walk their bikes over the more treacherous spots!) I sure wouldn’t wanna take a bike back there! (Most of the bikers were on the main road, which is more my speed, anyway...)

Ran out of time and headed home to the Holiday Inn after that, where my friend Melanie made it for dinner, and we had a great time catching up (it's one of those friendships where you rarely correspond but when you do touch base it's like you were never apart)!

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