It’s been awhile since I’ve written about Heritage River Road. Coming from Amelia Island, it’s a short offshoot off Heckscher Drive. Make a left turn by the White Shell bait and tackle shop. This unassuming little dead end road holds lot of interest for Bucko and me, especially during these COVID-19 times when we don’t travel much, if at all.
Over the two decades that we’ve been visiting this road, we have seen it change from a paved road beside an upland forest of cedars and hollies, to a cleared area with vegetation removed for, we heard, a marsh restoration project. But then it transformed instead into a huge mountain of dirt piled up there by hundreds of loads from dump trucks, then years later, removed again by hundreds of more dump truck visits. Apparently, this became a “sand bank” with soil stored for later construction projects and any marsh restoration work was delayed.
Now, at last, the huge mountains of dirt have been removed and the constant dump truck traffic has stopped. The areas along the river shore that were once blocked off due to this construction have now been opened again. Fisherman and beachgoers are enjoying their renewed access. And, in what seemed like a miracle to us, the marsh restoration work has restarted.
For two weeks, we happily watched work crews in orange shirts wading out into the flat muddy surface planting native cord grass. It looked like a scene straight out of the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, with workers in the blazing sun stooping over to hand-plant individual small bundles of plants, an unpleasant job if there ever was one. Now, the crews are finished and it is up to nature to take it from here.
Even when the mountains of dirt were still around, the roseate spoonbills, wood storks, herons and egrets found the cleared areas, which apparently collect prey when the water flows in from the nearby St. Johns River. Now replanted, more than likely there will be even more. Bucko and I visit every few days, and there are always spoonbills, too many and too often now for me to even aim at with my camera. There are plenty of other more interesting birds for us to admire instead.
Every so often, we see Sneaky, the one bird we’ve named. Sneaky is a clapper rail, a bird that is “thin as a rail,” with the ability to walk between closely packed cordgrass. It is rare to see this bird except for at high tides when it is flushed out of the marsh, but on Heritage River Road it must run across the road to get from one side of its habitat to the other. We are delighted whenever we see this hasty crossing. One thrilling time (for us), we even saw three chicks following quickly along before they all hid again in the marsh grasses.
Lately, we have been intrigued by the reddish egrets on the St. Johns River’s side of the road. These are the rarest of the heron/egret family in North America and exciting to spot. At first glance, a reddish egret in its white morph looks a lot like a snowy egret but they are anything but a “sit and wait” predator. No, you can always identify reddish egrets, even when they are white, by their dancing behavior as they jump around actively seeking prey, a fun show to watch. This bird breeds further south of us, but some make it up our way in the nonbreeding season. People have also reported seeing them on our beaches. Most are dark-colored, a reddish gray, but some are white their entire life. But both types are unusually active feeders for herons, hard to miss when you are looking for this characteristic.
There are lots of other birds to look for along Heritage River Road. Usually, we can find a kingfisher perched on a powerline or branch, but they are difficult to photograph – always flying away and clacking loudly at any stopped car. Sometime the tops of the power poles are adorned with wood storks, sometimes vultures, and often sea gulls. Ospreys are always easy to see here.
The riverside tidal areas often have a contingent of sandpipers and other shorebirds to look at too.
If you are looking for something different to do, take a slow drive down Heritage River Road, looking on both sides of the road. You will be amazed at all the different birds that are able to make this place their home!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.