Many birders balk at the idea of going to a zoo to flesh out their birding lists, but settled at the crossroads of migration paths and varied climates, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens offers serious birders a unique year-round experience featuring the opportunity to spot hundreds of species of wild birds.
A note from birder and Zoo Executive Director Tony Vecchio:
In most of the deep South, summer is considered a slow time for birding. Not so at the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens. While the number and diversity of birds may be at its lowest, the sheer excitement of up-close viewing of one of the country’s largest colonies of wild wood storks makes a trip to the Zoo a high priority for any birder or wildlife photographer.
But more on that later. For now, let’s talk ‘strategy’:
Plan on arriving an hour or two before the Zoo’s 9:00 a.m. opening time (the parking lot opens early so that employees can drive in). From the second you turn off of Zoo Parkway, you’ll recognize that this is not the Zoo of decades past. The lush plantings and six ponds speak to the ‘Garden’ part of the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens.
Park anywhere and just spend a few minutes standing by your car.
You should see boat-tailed grackle, northern mockingbird, collared dove, Northern cardinal, fish crow, and laughing gulls within seconds. In addition to their songs you’ll hear red-shouldered hawk and blue jay calls from the surrounding woods. In ten minutes time, you should also see wood stork, black-crowned night-heron, and black and turkey vultures flying overhead. At the right time of year a walk around the edges of the lot should also reveal brown thrasher, loggerhead shrike, yellow-rumped warbler, Carolina chickadee, gray catbird, and a number of woodpeckers, including pileated, downy, and red-bellied.
Now, it’s time to work the ponds. Start with the large open pond on the lot’s eastern boundary. If you haven’t seen wood storks yet, this is where you’ll see them resting or foraging. It’s also the most reliable spot in the Zoo for roseate spoonbill. In winter, blue-winged and green-winged teal, American coot, and common gallinule are regulars. Moving to the smaller, more forested ponds will reveal a very different environment. During the summer, these ponds are the only place in the Zoo to record purple gallinule, but anhinga, black-crowned night-heron, and green heron are reliable at any time. In the fall, winter, and spring, anything is possible in the trees around the ponds. Various warblers, vireos, and flycatchers are frequent visitors.
After working the ponds you might want to visit the feeders at the Education Campus in the southeast corner of the lot (in front of the Education Classrooms near the handicapped parking spot, or visible from the train as you pass Education) or the Administration building in the northwest corner. The Education Campus also has a butterfly garden that is well-appreciated by hummingbirds. Painted buntings are the stars at both sets of feeders but American goldfinch, chipping sparrow, white-breasted nuthatch, tufted titmouse, mourning dove, and red-winged blackbirds are always around. The suet feeders at the administration building are also great for Carolina wren, as well as woodpeckers and nuthatch.
Now, it’s time to go to the Zoo. The biggest thrill for any birder will be to go through the Africa loop. Wild wood storks began arriving in the Zoo’s Africa Loop in the late 90’s and have been returning annually ever since. Around January or February, the storks begin working on their nests in a grove of Live Oak trees right next to the elevated boardwalk. By June, the trees are bursting with the sounds (and smells) of hundreds of wood storks. Starting in 2003, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens staff began working with the USFWS on Wood Stork Conservation efforts to band and satellite tag chicks and adults. The babies begin to fledge in June and by early September, only a few lonely birds will be sitting in the trees, with the rest of the birds scattered all over the Zoo grounds. Not to be outdone, the black-crowned night-herons have decided to roost in the trees above the cheetah, African crane, and warthog exhibits. Though a little harder to see, there are just as many, maybe more, night-heron chicks.
As you walk through the lushly planted Zoo grounds be sure to check all ponds and water moats. Five heron and egret species, white ibis, and numerous ducks, including ruddy duck and northern shoveler enjoy the Zoo’s abundant water. A pair of bald eagles has consistently nested in the trees behind the giraffe exhibit just off Zoo property, so, always be on the lookout for an eagle fly-by.
After less than a ½ mile walk from the entrance, the main path will lead you to the beautiful Trout River. The edge of this tidal river is the only place frequented by yellow-crowned night-heron and the only place where clapper rail have been seen. The river is at its best in the winter, but is always a great place to add to your day’s list. Ospreys are seen daily. Diving ducks, cormorants, eight species of gulls and terns, and kingfishers are all possible from the Zoo’s river deck. It’s only thirteen miles to the ocean and, recently, gannets were seen flying up the river.
So, from seabirds to sparrows, a trip to the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens is the only way to start your Florida Birding Odyssey.*
*Please note: Spotting birds in the wild can be a real treat, but it is important to remember that the birds mentioned here are wild. They come and go as they please, so there are no guarantees that your favorite bird will make an appearance every time you visit.