The Yellow-Crowned Night Heron: Waiting for the Missus

The Night Heron Chronicles (S2, E1)

The “West Nest” Opens for the Season

It’s interesting to observe nature’s seasonality here in Florida.  A month or two after the osprey are settled in their nests, we can expect the arrival of the colorful and entertaining yellow-crowned night herons.  Last year, we had two active nests on the property.  At that time, I christened them the East Nest and West Nest, based on their relative locations.  I was hoping for a repeat performance this year.  The birds did not disappoint.

This season, the West Nest was occupied first.  I should point out that the West Nest is in a difficult location for photography.  It is nearly surrounded by thick branches, boughs of pine needles, dangling dodder vines…you name it.  In addition to simply obstructing the view, this vegetation casts a variety of unfortunate shadows on our dear subjects.  The best combination of line-of-sight and solar illumination is achieved by trespassing on the neighboring property around midafternoon.  The birds, however, are sometimes facing in the opposite direction.  In such cases, your humble photographer suffered through poor lighting conditions.

The West Nest: Flying Solo

On the afternoon of March 14, my wife Margi spotted our first yellow-crowned night heron 1 of the season, standing on the edge of the nest:

1 Good Profile 1The yellow-crowned night heron doing what he does best: standing motionless in his “Alfred the Butler” pose.  The small tuft of feathers in his beak is actually quite common in these birds…the result of their incessant preening to remove insects and other hitchhikers.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 300mm; 1/250 sec; f/8; ISO 200; EC = +0.3)

As you can see from the photo, the adult night heron has a rather unremarkable gray body, with barred flight feathers.  His distinguishing features lie above the neck: a primarily black head, white cheek patch, fluffy yellow crown, and head plumes.  (The plumes are not visible in the above photo, but we will see them later.)  His diet consists of just about anything that can be found near the water: crabs, crayfish, insects, snails, mussels, and fish.  With such a diverse diet, this dude will not go hungry.  The “night” part of the name refers to this bird’s largely nocturnal feeding habits.

The males and females look pretty much alike, with only a modest difference in size.  The sex is therefore difficult to establish by appearance, especially when only one bird is present.  I believe the above specimen to be the male, based on behavioral clues:

  • For many birds, the male migrates into the area first, in order to stake out and defend territory
  • This particular chap spent a fair amount of his time practicing the mating display that is characteristic of male night herons

The second point above is worthy of a discussion all its own.  In this impressive ritual, the male night heron first raises, and then quickly lowers his head, flaring his shoulder plumes and wing feathers, peacock-style:

9 Good Display 2The mating display of the male night heron shown in the first photo.  A still photograph does not do justice to this rather exotic ritual.  See the video below.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 240mm; 1/125 sec; f/8; ISO 200; EC = +0.3)

Our friend repeated this impressive display every few minutes or so, despite the fact that there was no other bird around to regale.  (The female, as usual, was running late.)

Unless you watched the entire sequence, it wouldn’t be clear how the male transitions from the rather comatose appearance in the first photo to the exaggerated display of the second.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a million:

Above: Our male yellow-crowned night heron practicing his courtship skills prior to the arrival of the unsuspecting female.

Sorry for the mediocre quality of the above video.  I recorded it with my iPhone 6s, and was not able to get particularly close to the bird.2  The fact that it was early evening didn’t help matters.  If you want to see a much clearer video of this rather unusual display, take a look at my companion post for the East Nest.  By this time, I had vastly improved my video techniques using a Nikon D5600 and a 300-mm telephoto lens.

The Missus Arrives! (17 March 2020)

The headline news on this day was that the female finally made her appearance!  I think she flew in overnight, since I didn’t see her when I made my rounds the previous evening.  The pics below show the pair getting settled in their humble abode.

Here are the two lovebirds, getting (re)acquainted: 3

01 Two birds!This season’s residents of the West Nest.  Note the cream-colored head plumes of the bird on the right.  These plumes are sometimes tucked against the back of the head, and therefore not always visible.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 140mm; 1/200 sec; f/11; ISO 200; EC = +0.7)

The nest, of course, has to be spruced up and repaired from last year:

03 Time to Repair the Nest!Nest building and repair are an integral part of the courtship ritual between the male and female night heron.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 130mm; 1/160 sec; f/11; ISO 200; EC = +0.3)

I think the comical scene below was a clumsy attempt at mating.  The two birds wound up falling off each other, almost clattering to the ground in the process.  Hopefully, they can get their act together, so I will have chicks to photograph:

02 Clumsy MatingI think their mating skills are a bit rusty.  After all, it’s been a year.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 120mm; 1/160 sec; f/11; ISO 200; EC = +0.3)

Undaunted, the male demonstrates his mating display for a clearly unimpressed female:

04 Male displays for femaleFinally, the male has a living, breathing female to impress!  You can see a bit of motion blur, due to his body movements during the display.  (Nikon D5600; FL = 140mm; 1/200 sec; f/11; ISO 200; EC = +0.7)

Update:
On March 20, I spotted at least one night heron in the East Nest.  It was getting pretty dark, so I could easily have missed the other bird.  They were both hanging out at the nest on March 21.  I got some nice stills and videos, which you can see in my companion post.

 


1 The full name of this bird is quite a mouthful, so I simply call this series: The Night Heron Chronicles.  We do have black-crowned night herons here on Siesta Key, but I don’t think there are any nests on our property.  I have only occasionally seen an individual specimen perched on one of our docks.  According to at least one source, the black-crowned bird is not particularly fond of human contact.
2 My lowly iPhone 6s has a digital zoom, not an optical one.  Optical zoom is achieved by using the magnifying power of the camera’s zoom lens.  This increases the fine detail contained in the resulting image.  Digital zoom, on the other hand, is achieved by simply cropping and enlarging the image once it has been captured by the camera’s sensor.  No additional detail is contributed to the image through this “zooming” process.  More recent iPhone models (starting with the iPhone 7 Plus) do include a crude type of optical zoom, but you have to be careful to exploit it correctly.
3 According to my avian go-to site, All About Birds, yellow-crowned night herons “form socially monogamous pairs, and some maintain their bonds from year to year.”  Are this season’s West Nest residents the same pair as last year’s?  Who knows, but it makes for a cute storyline.

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