Florida is home to many birds in the heron and egret family, but the most regal are the night herons. We have two species — the black-crowned night and the yellow-crowned — and both are just as elegant as are their names.
We see the black-crowned night heron more often, usually by the edge of a pond or creek. It sits on a low branch over water, scrunched up like a little old man meditating on world affairs. Suddenly, it will dart into the water — and lo and behold, it will have breakfast in its bill. They mostly prey on crustaceans, but will also eat frogs and lizards and such.
This black-crowned (or, as birders usually called it, BCNH) is a handsome bird in full adult plumage, boldly patterned in black and white and gray. It achieves full plumage by the third year. The first year it has very spotted brown and white plumage — excellent baby camouflage. This plumage changes to a brown back and creamy beige chest in the second year.
Don’t worry if you can’t keep that straight. Many birders, both new and experienced, get confused at the sighting of the first-year stage an wonder what the heck that bird is.
To make it more challenging, the young yellow-crowned looks very similar. To tell them apart, the beak of the BCNH has yellow on it, whereas the yellow crowned night heron has a dark beak. Another distinguishing factor is that the eye color. The YCNH’s will appear more orange than the BCNH’s yellow eye.
Some folks will tell you the YCNH has less spotting in the juvenile stage, and that is true. However, unless they’re side by side, it would be difficult for a new birder to determine what is less or more spots.
Our birding group does get excited to see a YCNH, as it’s less common in our area. When we do see one, the creamy yellow crown immediately stands out. This crown goes from its beak to the back of the head. In addition, the chest is gray and the wings are striped. Despite their juvenile similarity, in adult plumage it looks nothing like its cousin.
Both of these heron have amazing eyes. The YCNH has bright orange eyes, and the BCNH’s are a stunning carmine red. In addition, the black-crowned is a bit larger than the yellow-crowned. Both have bright orange legs in breeding plumage and yellow legs otherwise.
The best place to see these two birds and compare them side by side is at the Peace River Wildlife Center in Punta Gorda at Ponce De Leon Park. The Venice Area Birding Association (VABA) will be planning a trip there in the fall. Normally the facility is open to the public, but due to the coronavirus, you must make reservations (go to PRWildlife.org for more info).
But, where can you see these royal birds in the wild? When we are very lucky, we see both species at “Ding” Darling on Sanibel. VABA has a yearly trip to Ding (always at low tide) and we anticipate many sightings there. We have even been fortunate enough to see both juveniles there.
Too far to go? Look around your Florida neighborhood; you will probably find one or the other hiding in the trees along the pond. We have a BCNH that visits the pond in our development. And if you fish in Charlotte Harbor, you’ll probably come across both birds feeding along mangrove shorelines (one more reason to never leave line snagged on the trees).
Here in Florida, the crab population has to do a lot with the night heron breeding season, which is usually March through May. It’s impossible to raise babies without an abundant and steady food supply. Both species nest in shrubs and trees. The male chooses the nest site as part of the mating ritual, but the female then builds the nest. The BCNH seems fairly well acclimated to populated areas, but the YCNH is more secretive.
A clutch normally has between two to six eggs, and both parents share the incubating. After about 26 days, the white fluffballs are hatched. Instead of feeding each nestling, the adults regurgitate food into the center of the nest, and each baby must scramble for a share.
Soon the young will get too large for the nest. They may not be able to fly yet, so they have to perch in the nest tree. They will make their first flight at about six weeks.
Sadly, global warming is reducing Florida nesting success for these herons. Young birds easily overheat, and frequent spring heat waves endanger the young birds in their nests.
So, while you still can, go on a yellow-crowned or black-crowned hunting trip and see if you can spot royalty in the wild. Good luck and happy birding.
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.