Pat’s Wildways: Heritage River Road in Autumn

By Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D.
October 21, 2021

Goldenrod is blooming in all its glory now.

It’s no secret that a favorite place that Bucko and I revisit often is Heritage River Road off Heckscher Drive in Jacksonville. It’s always an interesting drive to get there from Amelia Island along A1A passing the length of Amelia Island, past Spoonbill Pond and the woods of Talbot Island, the bridge construction hold-ups, the coastal scenery from Little Talbot Island and on south past across the high Sister’s Creek Bridge where a full expanse of marshes and islands are visible. Every time we go on this route there is a new sight to amuse us, and, sadly, often a reckless driver to be aware of and to avoid hitting head on as they pass a number of cars all at once.

But once we cross the Sister’s Creek Bridge and turn left at the first road we can slow down and relax again to soak in the ever changing natural sights. Now, in autumn the white flowered Spanish needle plants have stopped blooming and the Gulf fritillary butterflies have remained to extract nourishment from the tall stands of goldenrod blooming now in their stead.

Just about every time we drive slowly down Heritage River Road we see roseate spoonbills, wood storks, and different species of herons and egrets. Sometimes the spoonbills are close to the road but other times they are situated on the other side of the marsh but still visible and photographable with a long lens that I no longer have. But that’s no problem for me these days. I am happy just snapping what I can with my IPhone and no longer worrying about capturing them digitally. Others with professional cameras can do this. Now it’s just fun to look.


Roseate spoonbills and wood storks are common sights in the marsh along the road.

There is one bird along this road that we sometimes see, and it is always fun for us. Recently the high tides and rain flooded the road and much of the marsh and that was the signal that we would see “Sneaky” again. Sneaky is a nickname we have given to one or another clapper rail that gets flushed out of the marsh at high water and has to run across the road to high ground on the other side. You can often hear these birds making their clacking sound in the marsh, but it is rare to actually see one, unless the conditions are just right and the birds have to make a run from their hiding places.

The Joe Carlucci Sisters Creek Park and Boat Ramp is at the end of the road, and this place holds its own attractions for us. Although we don’t have a boat we enjoy watching others put their boats in the water, sometimes easily, sometimes not. We like to see the family groups that gather at the picnic tables, and to watch the fisherman when they occasionally catch a fish. And often a pod of dolphins hangs out in this area too.

But most of all I like to visit the cats. There are two groups of feral cats here, one near the dumpster, another by the entrance gate, and by now I have made up names for at least a dozen of them that I see most of the time. A diverse group of people look out for these cats, providing drinking water, bringing food, and when the need arises, trapping a new comer that shows up to get fixed and returned again to the group. I have my special favorites and come prepared with dry food, cat treats, and sometimes even a can of cat food to split among them. Sometimes they are so full from whatever someone else fed them that they don’t even come out of the woods to see me. Other times they seem starved and run to our car when we arrive and I dole out more food than usual.

Two groups of feral cats live at the Carlucci Boat Ramp and depend on many volunteers to provision them with food and water.


But now there is trouble in my cat feeding paradise. A raccoon has shown up and chases the cats away to get at the food. The last time I was there I wielded an umbrella to fend off the raccoon, but this scared the cats away too. And the raccoon kept coming back at me, trying to get my bag of food. Whenever I turned my back it was at my heels within biting distance, not something I want to happen. I’m already girding up for my next encounter.

Check out Heritage River Road yourself and see what you can find. There’s always something going on if you just look!

Pat Foster-Turley, PhD is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Mark Tomes
Trusted Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago

I always enjoy Pat’s columns, as they are full of fun adventures in nature and good educational experiences. I was at a bird walk at the boat ramp she mentions and we saw 30 different species that day. Her experience with the raccoon also shows why we should not be leaving food out, including for cats. As cute as they are and as inhumane as it might seem, we should get them fixed so they don’t reproduce but then let nature takes it’s course after that. We can see why, as this raccoon has gotten very aggressive and could hurt someone badly, all because it has gotten so bold from leaving food out for the cats.