A Day with Yellow-crowned Night-herons

June 22, 2021 – In spite of the heat and humidity, I went out to Brazos Bend State Park hoping that the week’s pattern of drizzly afternoons would provide some relief. No such luck. The high reached 94F with 70% humidity and no cooling rain. Yet the Yellow-crowned Night-herons seemed to be quite at home, and I saw at least five of them on this day.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron
1/8000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

This adult Yellow-crowned Night-heron (YCNH, just for convenience) stood in a sunny spot in the weeds at the edge of the water, very still, watching (or listening?) for his prey. It was interesting that, in this heat, he didn’t choose to stand in the water for its cooling effect, but rather, in the mud.

My last post was about Nighthawks, and now I was seeing Night-herons. Why are they not “Night Hawks” and “Night Herons”, or “Night-hawks” and “Night-herons”? Turns out that the American Ornithologists’ Society (AOS) has established formal rules for common bird names. Naming is a chore that would drive me to drink. I’m very glad there is an organization that has taken on the challenge, and glad to simply follow where they lead. And yes, I realize now it should be YN, not YCNH… but the latter is common usage among birdwatchers, so, in my book, it stays.

Immature Yellow-crowned Night-heron
1/500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

A juvenile YCNH was slowly edging his way up a willow tree trunk that extended out over the water. It takes 3-4 years for these juvenile birds to replace their initial baby feathers with the sharp gray and white pattern of the adults. In October 2018 I had photographed a much younger bird, showing only the little cream-colored arrow pattern on his brown feathers; this bird has replaced his little-arrow coat with a coat starting to show his adult coloring, including white cheek patch, white crest, and long dark feathers outlined with a lighter border. His plumage is still perfectly suited to camouflage him against tree bark and marsh foliage.

YCNH in aggravated fluff-up
1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

His parent was hunting about 30 feet away, keeping an eye on both his chosen hunting ground and the youngster. A Little Blue Heron ventured too close; the YCNH fluffed up and charged, squawking at him to chase him away. I didn’t know that the YCNH can hold his crown plumes erect when he wants to be especially intimidating!

YCNH showing his back plumes
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I followed one YCNH as he kept flying forward 20 or 30 feet along the path to stay away from me. The third time (I’m a slow learner), I was ready for him, and with my camera’s wonderful 3D Auto Focusing option, I was able to follow him as he flew behind a tree…

YCNH sailing over lotus leaves
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 500
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

…and between some lotus leaves, to land on the bank again. This time I walked past him, cradling my camera partially hidden in my arms and gazing studiously toward the opposite bank. He kept an eye on me but didn’t fly away, so he was able to return to his hunting in peace.

Yellow-crowned Night-heron strikes a pose
1/500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Another bird strode carefully along the edge of the water, the leafy reflections behind him looking like colorful clouds in the blue reflected sky. He walked so close to the edge of the path that I could only get this portrait shot. It gives a good view of his hefty black bill, perfect for stabbing his preferred prey, crustaceans.

YCNH proud of his catch
1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

At the end of the day, with the sun sinking below the trees ringing 40-Acre Lake, I found this bird walking proudly along the path, carrying his prize – a crawfish. Here’s an interesting bit of trivia… while bird names for a single species are fairly consistent within a country, the names of this particular freshwater crustacean just within the United States include crawfish, crayfish, craydids, crawdaddies, crawdads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, rock lobsters, mudbugs, and yabbies (per Wikipedia). Crawfish are a staple of Louisiana Cajun cuisine – my mouth waters remembering the spicy Crawfish Etouffee at Ralph & Kacoo’s in Louisiana back in the early 80’s (feels like a million years ago).   

Tossing his prey to reposition for trimming
1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I’m always amazed at how proficiently herons toss their food to get it aligned with their bill and/or throat, for whatever the next food-preparation task might be. In this case, he tossed the crawfish to rotate it, so that he could remove the big front claws; one claw is already on the ground. He didn’t beat the crawfish on the ground to de-claw it, he neatly snipped the claws using the edges of his bill. You can see how the clear nictitating membrane, the bird’s third translucent eyelid, has swept across to protect his eyes while dealing with this hard-shelled prey.

Final steps to preparing the meal
1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

With some very audible crunching sounds, the heron finished preparing his meal, downed it in one big gulp, and finished with a delicate little burp.

And with that satisfying end to a great day in the park, I headed home for my own dinner.

6 thoughts on “A Day with Yellow-crowned Night-herons”

  1. Thanks Sam for this interesting story and the beautiful pictures. Also here in Belgium we have lots of local names for plants and animals. That’s why there is also a scientific name (latin name) of every species 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true. A friend from Holland reminded me of the same thing almost 50 years ago, and I’ve failed to attempt to learn the Latin names. I do look them up to confirm confusing identifications. Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  2. So many fascinating and beautiful shots! I especially like the flight over lotus leaves and the flustered one with his tipped-up crown and ruffled coat. It’s really fun to get to know the characters of a story in such a vivid and insightful way. Thanks for taking me along, via internet, for this intimate peek into the lives and dispositions of YCNHs!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nicely done Sam – an excellent summary of this really cool bird – along with the BCNH they can be a lot of fun to watch as they are both extremely meticulous in their hunting (when they are not snoozing ha). I was not aware they could pop their crown like that – very unique shot. Just as a datum point, here in the heartland of IL we have always referred to them as crawdads.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t had near as much luck finding BCNHs here in my normal stomping grounds – I know they are here, as others see and photograph them. I’ll just have to keep looking 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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