I have talked in previous articles about the sprawling, tropical wetlands of Florida; North America’s premier habitat for egret, heron and other large wading birds. Wherever these tidal wetlands occur one pint-sized but splendid little heron can be found stalking the shallow edges; the Yellow-crowned Night Heron.
The Yellow-crowned night heron is a year-round resident of the state of Florida and commonly breeds in the other south eastern states of America. It grows from 55 to 70 cm (21 to 28 inches) with females being slightly smaller than males. The birds in these images were photographed at the Ding Darling Nature Preserve on the beautiful island of Sanibel. This is a great place to get close to these birds but in truth, they can be found anywhere where there is mangrove in Florida. I have even seen them around water inlets in coastal international hotel car parks. Look to the tree roots just above the water line.
Despite the name, this night heron actively feeds during the day as well as at night. The heavy, sharp beak is the perfect tool for hunting their favourite food – small mangrove fiddler crabs. As the sun sets at the J.N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and the last of the cars make their way to the exit, the roads come alive. Fiddler crabs and other insects and small reptiles crawl up in droves to savour the last of the heat captured in the dark asphalt road. This bounty is an irresistible smorgasbord for the Yellow-crown, who stalks quietly on to the road to fill up with helpless victims
Once the heron has done the hard work of capturing a tasty crab without ending up snared in the fiddler crabs huge claw, it is reluctant to give up its prize. Even a nearby and previously tolerated photographer looks like a potential lunch thief. The heron sets off in a leggy flight to a more private place to devour its feast. The shell of the crab is ejected later in pellet form and can be found lying around the edges of the road.
The young birds take up to 3 years to develop their full adult colours. Many young birds can be seen in Florida wetlands. My first thought was that I was looking at a species that I hadn’t seen before. The next question is to distinguish between the young Yellow-crowned Night heron and the young “regular” Night herons. Look for the eye; the Yellow-crowned has that rich, dark amber eye compared to the pale orange to yellow eye of the Night heron.
As sun beams scattered by the branches of mangrove trees, dappled the salty river bank with light, a night heron dropped its wings and lifted its back to the sun. My first thought was that this was a new and elaborate hunting behaviour that afford free shade to insect in exchange for their life. I watched, poised with camera, ready to capture the moment that the heron tries to gulp down an outsized and unsuspecting frog. That would make a great photograph!
A few moments passed in this hunched position. In one smooth body swing the bird stood upright, wings open wide and body leaning back, head cocked. It looked like a soccer player celebrating a glorious goal, or a bird shaped satellite dish pivoting to meet a signal from above. Nothing quite so grand, though. This bird was just sunbathing. Like any good sunbather, it made sure of equal sunning on the back and front.
With a conservation status of Least Concern, this specialist crustacean feeder is another success story of nature living in close proximity to and something close to harmony with humans. It is also another example of successful incidental nature viewing; a beautiful bird with interesting behaviours living in and around suburban water courses and wetlands.
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