A Pleasant Surprise: Black-crowned Night Heron

June 28, 2024

Last week during one of the cooler days, I had a memorable experience while setting up wildlife cameras along Outlet Creek. I noticed a beautiful Black-crowned Night Heron hunting in the riffles of water in the creek. The lighting was perfect for taking some good photos, but I thought it would just fly away once it noticed me. As I walked back to the vehicle to get my camera, I hoped the bird would still be there when I returned. Luckily it was still there when I got back. The heron was super focused on hunting and clearly not disturbed by my presence, so I was able to get some good close-up shots.

The Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is a stocky, small heron with a large head and short yellow legs. The elegant adult bird has a black crown and back which contrasts the rest of its soft grey/bright white body. Males and females look similar though the males are slightly larger. During the breeding season, both the male and female adult herons have two long white plumes on their head.

The adults have bright yellow legs whereas juveniles have duller greenish-yellow legs. The juveniles are also discernable by the overall dull grey brown on their heads and wings and brownish streaking on their chest. The adults have bright red eyes and the juveniles’ eyes are orange.

Even though this delightful heron is considered a “common” bird it can be allusive and secretive as it does most of its hunting during dusk and dawn. We have caught them on our game cameras hunting in the dark of night, sometimes right next to a raccoon.

Black-crowned Night Herons nest in colonies of over one dozen nests in a single tree. We have not found any colonies on the mitigation lands as of yet. They are thought to be monogamous and mate for life.

As I watched this unusual heron hunting, I saw it catch aquatic insects like dragonfly larvae, small silver fish, and a crayfish. It didn’t stop to rest but hunted continuously. They are known to eat terrestrial mammals such as voles and gophers, amphibians such as bullfrogs, and even birds.

Black-crowned Night Herons are the most widespread heron species in the world. It is found on all the continents of the world except Antarctica and Australia. The resident subspecies that lives in Northern California usually lives here year-round. These are resident to medium distance migrants with some populations staying year-round while others fly to southern California or as far as Central America.

One last cool fact is that Black-crowned Night Herons will vomit up their stomach contents as a defense mechanism and deterrent against predators much like Turkey Vultures do!