Plants & Animals

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Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

A graceless moment provides the perfect opportunity to capture the full elegance of this rare Missouri resident.

I watched the heron as it began to make its move from a floating log. Its head dropped almost imperceptibly toward the lake surface. I moved ever so slowly myself to make some final camera adjustments in the harsh sunlight. Somewhere below the waterline a crayfish was short for the world. The gangly bird was a yellow-crowned night heron, a deft hunter of pincered prey. But things didn’t go quite as smoothly as either of us expected, and the heron’s momentary loss of grace provided a golden opportunity.

As the heron made its final strike, it slipped and fell in the lake, becoming fully submerged. Yellow-crowned night herons are quite capable of recovering from submersion, but diving isn’t a typical component of their hunting approach. The original plan was to simply pluck the crayfish from the water with its long bill. When the frantic bird surfaced and began scrambling back onto the log, I was impressed to see that it hadn’t lost the crayfish in all the commotion. Safely back on the log, the heron’s first order of business was to swallow its hard-won meal. Next, I beheld a whimsical wildlife moment I’ll never forget.

The yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is a medium-sized, bluish-gray heron with a black face and bill, white cheeks, and large, reddish-orange eyes. Its name comes from the white strip on its crown that is tinged with yellow during the breeding season. A trailing plume originates at the back of the crown and falls across the neck of adults. The yellow-crowned night heron has longer legs and a less stocky figure than its closest counterpart, the black-crowned night heron, and a friendlier demeanor in the presence of other birds, based on my observations. Both are considered nocturnal, hence their names, but I often observe night herons feeding in the middle of the afternoon.

Yellow-crowned night herons are considered rare summer residents in Missouri, and they usually nest near streams and wooded wetlands in small colonies high in surrounding trees. They are frequent visitors to St. Louis’ Forest Park where I often photograph them, but I’ve also spotted them feeding along the Meramec River. Crustaceans of all kinds are the preferred prey of yellow-crowned night herons across their range, but in Missouri they usually forage on crayfish.

Soaked and disheveled from its errant hunt, the heron began to spread its huge wings and cupped them toward the sky. It rotated on the log until it was pointed directly toward the sun with its feet positioned one in front of the other like those of a runway model. Amused by the bird’s behavior, it took me a moment to realize that it was simply positioning itself to dry its plumage most effectively. Once it settled into its final stance, the lithe but cartoonish-looking bird turned its head toward the bank and gave me an annoyed expression. I did my best to capture that expression with my camera and returned a look of great appreciation for the heron’s fascinating display.

— Story and photo by Danny Brown

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