Herons of the Night

Herons of the Night

After my flirtation with tiny, colorful flitting birds this Spring, I am looking at the larger wading birds anew. We have two types of Night Herons in South Texas, the Yellow-crowned and the Black-crowned. Yes, they do hunt at night, but are also somewhat active during the day. Both are great photographic subjects as they are slow-moving stalkers.

The Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) occurs world-wide, with the exception of Australia and Antarctica.  We have them year-round here on the Texas coast.

Range of the Black-crowned Night Heron

Range of the Black-crowned Night Heron

I have seen and photographed Black-crowned Night Herons in the trees just a hundred feet from where Hwy 6 crosses Buffalo Bayou, at the Texas City Dike and of course at Brazos Bend State Park. The are at home around fresh or salt water shallows and eat just about anything: leeches, frogs, earthworms, lizards, insects, crayfish, crabs, fish, birds and eggs.  

Perched on a pier at Texas City Dike Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 400

Perched on a pier at Texas City Dike

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 400

Black-crowned Night Herons have, of course, a black cap with a spot of white near their heavy bill. These birds grab and crush their prey; they don't stab like the more elegant egrets. During breeding season, Night Herons grow a fantastic white head plume. They are stocky, thick birds with a black back, dark gray wings and their face and body are a pearly gray and white. Characteristic of a nocturnal hunter, they have huge eyes. The striking part is the color: crimson red.

Black-crowned Night Heron hunting at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Black-crowned Night Heron hunting at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Often you see them just perched in a tree or hunched up on a log during the day, doing nothing. All Night Herons do hunt some during the day but are much more active late in the afternoon. Recently, I saw one in an active, horizontal hunting posture in the shallows at Elm Lake. It was about mid-afternoon.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

Juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

This juvenile was also hunting at Elm Lake, Brazos Bend State Park. Look at those cool stripes on his neck and chest. Or her neck and chest. Night Herons have very little sexual dimorphism; research says the females are slightly smaller. But, that is a relative issue. This one's eye is orangey-red and note his lower bill is yellow. He still has spots on his brown feathers; he won't be fully adult until 2-3 years old.

Range of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Range of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron

The Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is strictly an American bird. In this area they start showing up in mid-March. I remember seeing a solitary one at Brazos Bend State Park, and then the next time I went they were everywhere. Here the middle of May, you might see one every 40 feet or so.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron on the swamp side of 40-acre Lake Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Yellow-crowned Night Heron on the swamp side of 40-acre Lake

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are not as blunt and thick bodied as the Black-crowneds. They have a similar bill, but it is all black. The top of his head is a faint yellow and both of the Night Herons have the same kind of fancy head plume during breeding season. This one has a much slimmer gray body and finely detailed back and wing feathers.

Preening is a necessity Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Preening is a necessity

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Yellow-crowned Night Herons have bright orange legs during breeding season. Keep an eye out for them locally, I saw one in the drainage ditch alongside Dairy-Ashford near Westheimer not long ago. No kidding, they build nests in neighborhood trees.  

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

Now, the young Yellow-crowned above is the inspiration for this blog post. Isn't that just fantastic? He has a reddish-brown crown, and his young feathers are such a pretty combination of browns and creams. This is not one just out of the nest, but he isn't very old either. I watched him hunt (rather unsuccessfully) and even investigate a small piece of wood.

My new favorite bird, Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

My new favorite bird, Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600

I watched this one for a long time, I have hundreds of photos of him standing around. Often they turn their heads to the side, better to see into the water for prey. I am reading Bird Sense: What it is Like to be a Bird and some birds' eyes are lateralized; one eye for near vision and the other for distance. Sometimes it is species-specific (like in chickens) but other times it is individual. I need to pay more attention to which eye they are using for what. I definitely have seen birds turn their heads and scan the sky in response to a noise or distress call.

You just never know when one will actually grab a crab or crayfish, stretch, scratch or raise his wings or .... just fluff up like above. It is all about patience and learning to anticipate.

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

Young Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/800 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1600

This one was standing on the railing of the pier at Creekfield Lake in Brazos Bend. If I had to guess, I would saw this one is maybe a second year bird. He has a the dark cap, but his chest and back are brown, not gray. I am still in awe of how close I was able to get. I had to back off the zoom to get him all in the frame.

Yellow-crown Night Heron on nest Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Yellow-crown Night Heron on nest

Sony A700 with 70-400mm 1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1000

Tiny chick peeks out of the nest

Tiny chick peeks out of the nest

This is the nest I think I mentioned a few posts back. It is built out over the water and I do fear for the chicks when they hatch and start moving about. I first saw this nest April 8. We joked that she was a stuffed bird since there was never any movement or change.

And by May 12 there is at least one chick. The adult was standing in the nest, but I did not see any feeding or an adult bring food to the nestling. I watched for a long time, but then I got distracted by one of those cute little warblers.

Maybe I can get some photos of the chick as it grows up.

Have you ever noticed Yellow-crowned Herons in your neighborhood? Or in the drainage ditches? Do you look in the ditches and bayous as you drive past now for strange wading birds?

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