February 25, 2020 ~ On a recent outing along Sailfish Road in Surfside, TX, I got to spend some time with the Yellow-crowned Night Herons. Winter is a great time to watch for them; the vegetation has died back, and the vivid marking on their heads makes them easy to spot. These slow-moving birds are perfect for my novice photographic skills.
The YCNH is a mid-sized heron, standing roughly 24” tall when he stretches his neck. He has a creamy yellow stripe down the center top of his head, with very fine black and white crown plumes. He has a white cheek patch and strong black shell-crushing bill. His feathers are slate gray with a handsome light gray outline highlighting each one. And if you look closely, you can see the fine gray plumes down the center of his back, and the crenelated wing feathers just above his tail. I’m referring to him as male, but we don’t know, the males and females look the same. The birds in this post are all in non-breeding plumage.
And speaking of breeding, this All About Birds range map is a bit confusing. It says that YCNH is here along the Texas Gulf Coast only for breeding, implying that they would migrate over to Louisiana or down to Mexico for the fall and winter. But I have these photos of them here in October and February. So maybe they only spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in other locations. I’ll have to watch more closely this year.
The timing of YCNH breeding is dependent upon the emergence of crabs from their winter dormancy in the mud. And the emergence of the crabs is dependent on average temperatures. Blue Crabs, which are common here on the Gulf Coast, become active when the water warms to about 50 degrees F… and the water here is typically at least that warm all year long. Most bird references say that our YCNH will be breeding March through May.
His close cousin, the Black-crowned Night Heron has solid black back and wing feathers and a black crown. Here is a partial photo of one that surprised me in Surfside, last fall. I had stepped into the grass at the water’s edge focusing on the other side of the waterway, when this heron thundered out from under my feet and wedged himself into the center of the scrub cedar at the water’s edge to hide. Note his red eye, in contrast with the bright brown eye of the YCNH, his partly yellow bill, in contrast with the black bill of the YCNH. He also has plain yellow legs instead of the orange-y legs of the YCNH.
I had been watching a pair of birds, when this one stretched his wings and hopped over the dead winter foliage. His wings show the fluted edges we saw in the resting bird above, but this bird’s legs are bright orange. It’s possible a difference in diet accounts for the difference in leg color. It’s also possible he is just a little further ahead in achieving breeding readiness (note his plumes are longer than those of the bird in the top image).
And why, you ask, was the f-stop set at 7.1? Well… I forgot to switch my settings. Just a few minutes earlier, I’d been working with a Great Blue Heron, only about 30 feet away… you get the picture. With my target now about 50 feet away, a setting of f/6.3 would have been perfect. It would have had the added advantages of making the background a little less cluttered and allowing a lower ISO.
Here he is slowly and deliberately adjusting his footing. I have about 40 shots of him carefully and repeatedly depressing the foliage as if testing its strength, or maybe teasing out a wandering crustacean; these are stealthy hunting birds. He finally took his stance with one foot resting on the bent weed stems, giving us a peek at the partial webbing between his toes. It’s always a thrill when you can catch the feet of birds, and wading birds in particular.
The Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night Herons have that name because their eyes are specialized for seeing in both daylight and at night. They are often seen hunting for crayfish and crabs in deep twilight, long after sunset, when most other birds have gone to roost.
Last fall, I found this young bird at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge. He was resting one-legged on a beautifully welded piece of aluminum, completely unconcerned with me as I gently rolled up and stopped to take his photo. The young Yellow- and Black-crowned Night Herons are very close in appearance, but the juvenile YCNH has a pure black bill, while the juvenile BCNH has yellow on his bill.
Sometimes I photograph birds at a great distance, knowing that the images probably won’t be worth keeping, but hoping to learn something new about them. Something like this. A YCNH had perched on a post out in the marsh, and turned away. There on the back of his head and neck, appeared the perfect image of a long-billed bird glaring at me. Very useful when you’d like to convince an eagle or a fox that you can see him coming!
Hunting for crustaceans is best from 3 hours before high tide to 3 hours after. I took this shot about an hour before high tide, so it’s puzzling that this guy appeared to be settling down for a one-legged snooze, with his eyes approaching half-mast. Maybe he was digesting a big meal.
From slow-moving to full stop, my visit with the dapper Yellow-crowned Night Herons was delightful.