The black-crowned night heron

Will the real black-crowned night heron please stand up? Which of the two birds below is a black-crowned night heron? Can you pick it out?

If you chose the bird on the left, you are correct. If you chose the bird on the right, you are also correct. How can that be? The bird on the left is a juvenile. As is often the case with birds, the young show little resemblance to the adult of the species.

Male black-crowned night heron with white breeding plumage.

Standing or flying, black-crowned night herons keep their head tucked in, which gives them a hunchback appearance. Juveniles have grey-brown plumage, with blurry splotches and streaks, great camouflage for a vulnerable youngster hiding in the trees. Adults have gray-blue feathers and a blue-black cap. During breeding season (right now), you can identify an adult male by the thin, white plumes that stream from its head.

Black-crowned night herons inhabit fresh and salt water wetlands around the world, except in Antartica and Australia. It follows, then that they eat fish, as well as other aquatic life, including frogs, crayfish, clams, and mussels. They are equal opportunity eaters.

Now that you can identify a black-crowned night heron, the question arises: do you have the patience of a heron? Watching one stand at water’s edge, motionless, for what seems like an eternity…often longer than you care to stand by…can indeed be an exercise in patience.

That single-goal focus produces results, as I observed early one morning this past fall on the bank of Blue Heron Lake. In the course of just thirty minutes. I watched one juvenile catch three frogs. While a long, thick bill might seem ideal for stabbing prey, night herons actually grab their meal with an open beak, often shaking it to stun or kill. They may dip the prey back into the water to wash off aquatic debris; then, cocking their head back while opening their bill, they maneuver the prey around mid-air in order to swallow the catch whole, a process that may take awhile.

Juvenile black-crowned night heron catching frog.

Well now, what about those long-necked birds that we are currently seeing at water’s edge, or high up in the trees? Actually, many of them are members of the same family as the black-crowned night heron. They include snowy egrets (short, white, with black bill and yellow feet), great egrets (tall, white, with yellow-orange bill and black feet), and great blue herons (tall like great egret, gray -blue plumage), as well as green herons and bitterns at other times of the year.

Great blue heron with breeding plumage.

Right now, mating season has begun. The males display beautiful, wispy breeding plumage for potential mates to admire. In years past, there has been a great blue heron rookery high up in the bull pines at the southwest side of Blue Heron Lake. What a ruckus they make when the chicks are begging for food. During the next few months, keep your eyes peeled and ears tuned for some fascinating avian behavior around Blue Heron Lake.

Keep birding,
Robert Groos
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Robert Groos is a published photographer and keen observer of nature who lives in Yosemite Lakes Park. He shares some of his outstanding images of our local feathered friends along with some tidbits of interesting facts about each. We hope you enjoy them as much as we do. 

Previous posts:
The bluebird
Talking turkey
The secret world of the phainopepla
Acorn woodpecker 
Oak titmouse
White-breasted nuthatch
California quail
Bald eagle
Western kingbird
The turkey vulture