First stop was Ft. Clinch State Park. On the beach by the fishing pier was a nice mix of Laughing Gulls, Herring Gulls, Black Skimmers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and Royal and Caspian Terns:
I also visited the eponymous fort in the park, built during the Civil War, but to be honest it was a bit boring. It might have been nice if there was a guided tour, but I wandered around on my own with a brochure and thought "meh". If you're into military stuff you might like it; I am not.
Ft. Clinch State Park also disappointed me due to the lack of trails; the park's pretty small overall, and the majority of the attraction is the beach and the fort. Beyond that, there's two hiking/biking trails, but there was some sort of marathon or race going on that day, so I was constantly in the way of runners. I decided to head south on A1A to the other parks on my list.
Of the two Talbot Islands, I chose Little Talbot simply because I've heard the name come up more often than Big Talbot when discussing rare bird sightings. I was not disappointed. The beaches themselves were very nice, and I drove all the way to the south beach, which had the fewest people. The birds weren't numerous, but because it was a beautiful day and the beach was so nice and empty, I decided to sit and chill for about an hour.
When I got up to walk around again, I noticed a couple of birds that I didn't recognize. I took some photographs to help me ID them because I'm not good with shorebirds, especially when they're in winter vs. breeding plumage. Three of the birds hung around long enough for me to sit with my book for a few minutes and positively ID them as a Piping Plover and a pair of Wilson's Plovers, two uncommon species that made my Life List.
I ate lunch under a pavilion on the beach, but lots of people had shown up by that point and it was no longer quiet and peaceful. Next stop was further down A1A, at Hugenot Memorial Park. I'd been told this was a great breeding place for shorebirds including Dunlins, which I've only seen once in my life and hoped to find again. It's also a place where you can drive your car on the beach ($3 entrance fee).
It is also where I began having a panic attack from the crowds of people.
I guess my mistake was going on a Saturday, and this wasn't even a holiday weekend, but oh my god. It was like Spring Break. Hundreds, maybe a thousand cars and people crammed on this little stretch of beach. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Laughing Gulls in their fenced-off breeding area, flying everywhere and making a racket that drowned out the music from the partiers. I parked briefly and got out to look around, and I might have enjoyed looking at the birds if I hadn't been surrounded by so many people. I wanted to cry. I needed to get out of there fast. In my haste to leave, I drove the wrong way and nearly got my car stuck in the sand, which made me start freaking out more, and then I hit so many potholes and bumps on the way toward the exit I was afraid I was permanently damaging my car, which made me start crying and then I hated myself for not being able to cope with crowds of people and for ruining what had otherwise been a good day. And when I found a somewhat quieter parking area near the exit, and tried to salvage what I could of the trip, my shoes got bogged down in mud when I walked around and then I tracked mud into my car and everything was awful for a little while.
I left the park and made a few other stops along the way and took some more wrong turns; nothing interesting to see, and there was no place to park to visit Fernandina Beach, so I wound up just going back to Ft. Clinch (entrance fee good all day) to walk along the beach there. It was kind of crowded by that point but not terrible. Trying to avoid the runners and mountain bikers, I hiked along the trails for a bit and saw a Roseate Spoonbill fly by, along with some migratory warblers in the oaks. Also got another lifer on the beach: Sandwich Terns, which weren't there earlier that morning.
|Sandwich Tern, small bird in the center. You can make out the yellow tip on the bill.|
|Two Willets, just chillin.|
Verdict: The parks are probably nicer to visit on a weekday when there's fewer crowds. Overall, I only saw 34 bird species the whole day (I spent about 5 hours, total, in the car) but three of them were lifers, so while it wasn't a total bust, the day could have been better. The weather was nice and Little Talbot has pretty beaches, so I may go back at some point, but Cedar Key remains a better spot for migration.