An update on Heritage River Road

Some of you regular readers might remember my lamentations about the clearing of wooded areas along Heritage River Road off Heckscher Drive and the visible destruction this revealed, day by day. It has been going on for months now. It was cleared of trees, then soil was dug out and made into giant dirt mountains that trucks removed bit by bit, every day.

A small attempt was made to plant marsh grass, but these sprigs have since mostly died.

What it looks like now is a totally man-made wasteland.

But unbelievably, the birds have found it. First, it was a lone great blue heron, looking forlorn with its old habitat gone, but it still remains. And our ubiquitous great and snowy egrets still maintain a small presence. For a while, a group of wood storks staked out their claim to the far end of the cleared acres, a place where the few remaining trees somewhat hid them. But gone are the reddish egrets, the yellow-crowned night herons and the kingfishers. This barren habitat has just proven too much for them.

Now, though, things are looking up in the bird community there. For a few weeks Bucko and I have been watching a group of 20 or more roseate spoonbills that seem to find some food sources they can sweep from the shallow water with their beaks. Some of these birds are even in their pinkest coloration, showing that there must be at least some crustaceans (with red carotene) in their diets. And, what with the open sky above, where there used to be trees, we can now occasionally see ospreys flying and now and then a bald eagle.

Sometimes even stranger sights show up in this bare landscape. A few weeks ago, a group of black vultures settled there on the dirt. Of course, I’m used to seeing these social birds in groups, feeding on carcasses at the side of the road or roosting in trees. But this time there must have been 40 of these birds, all just standing in a group on the dirt, no food items in sight.

It took a visit to White Shell Bait Store just up the road to find out a potential reason. Bucko and I were chatting with the attendant about the hermit crabs she sells for bait when we mentioned the vultures. She told us that the uninhabited island across the St. Johns River from her store has been nicknamed “Vulture Point.” She said that whenever large, dead animals like dolphins are removed from our beaches, many are deposited there for the vultures to take care of. I once had a friend who lived in the backwoods of Florida who had a “vulture feeder” where he would put rotten meat out for these scavengers – at a distance from his house, of course. Well, this is the same idea. Let nature do the work for us. I’m guessing the vultures we saw nearby, off Heritage River Road, were resting from their feast across the river.

But it took Bucko to find the really exciting thing about the changes in the habitat along the road. After his years of monitoring the ever-shrinking breeding group of least terns on the Fort Clinch beach, he has a familiarity with the flight patterns and calls of these rare birds. They like remote hard-surfaced areas to lay their eggs on, places where people do not disturb them. Fort Clinch State Park has become too humanized for their tastes. But this big barren area along Heritage River Road, with no walking trails or way for people to approach them appears perfect!

On a recent day we watched least terns fly into an area far from the road, behind a huge pile of dirt. It looks like least terns have at last found an undisturbed place to lay their eggs. However inhabitable it looks to us, for them it is just the ticket. These birds fly out to the river and shorelines to catch their fish, so the lack of prey in this area does not bother them. But it is a place to return to with fish in the beaks.

So, even with all the destruction of upland habitat in this area, maybe it is serving a higher purpose – providing undisturbed habitat for some birds that sorely need it. I am always amazed at the resiliency of nature, and the drive to survive even in the most unlikely situations. We will continue to watch Heritage River Road to see what other surprises are yet in store for us!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.

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