Home, Sweet Nest

Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

I recently had occasion to stop by a marina I rarely visit: one less than two miles from my home. Stepping out of my car, I noticed a Black-crowned Night Heron patrolling the edge of a tree-dense circle in the midst of a parking area. My camera happened to be at hand, so I took advantage of the opportunity to catch a photo of a bird I rarely see in mid-day.

As I watched, the bird pulled a fallen twig out of the grass, and I realized it was engaged in stick-gathering.

Clearly aware of my presence, it gave me an appraising look, then flew up into one of the large live oaks in the midst of the parking lot.

The bird had been at work for some time; this certainly wasn’t its first stick. I watched as it tucked the new stick into its nest,

and then hopped to a nearby branch to admire its handiwork.

At that point, the sound of birds in the treetops — and the amount of droppings on the ground — made clear the existence of a true rookery. The trees were filled with nests, the squawking of hungry youngsters, and the occasional sight of a seemingly exhausted parent.

Trying to get a glimpse of birds high in leafy live oaks isn’t easy, but I was pleased with this image of two youngsters in a different nest.

Black-crowned Night Herons will nest among other birds, and these weren’t the only residents of the live oaks. Great Egret chicks were scattered among the herons: their nests fewer, but no less noisy.

Great Egret chicks (Ardea alba)

Black-crowned Night Heron chicks leave the nest at about four weeks, and Great Egret chicks at four to six weeks. The size and behavior of these youngsters suggests they’re approaching that time; the number of birds still gathering sticks suggests there may be opportunities to see even younger birds developing in this urban rookery.

Comments always are welcome.

74 thoughts on “Home, Sweet Nest

    1. Perhaps for repair, or perhaps for an initial construction. I saw several empty nests where adults were actively adding sticks, so it’s hard to say. Now that I know the site exists, it will be easy enough to stop by on my way to or from work and see what’s happening.

  1. Great shots, Linda. An active heronry is always a very interesting place, and sometimes odiferous too!

    1. There certainly was a bit of a fragrance lingering in the air. One man who was walking his dog stopped to chat. He said there had been a bit of a movement to discourage the birds, but they soon realized the birds were more determined than the humans were clever, so now they’re just waiting for nesting season to be over.

    1. Often enough, I’ll see the night herons flying in the evening or very early morning as they head to their roosts, but the sight of one on the ground in late morning sunshine was unusual enough for me to take a second look. Those second and third looks can be important!

    1. And a corollary: the camera we travel with doesn’t necessarily have to have lenses longer than my arm to provide pleasurable images of birds. I may have allowed myself to be just a little too influenced by local bird photographers who say things like, “But if you go there, you have to have at least a 400mm lens, or even better a 500mm lens, to get a decent photo.” After seeing these images, I gave my little 70-300mm lens a pat and told it, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”

    1. Being lined up under the trees isn’t always the best place to be. A woman who saw me taking these photos called over to me and said, “Be sure and keep your mouth closed!”

        1. The gulls train us early. There’s a reason there’s netting above outdoor eating areas in Galveston, and announcements made on the ferries to feed the gulls from the stern of the boat.

        2. It’s funny what the mind dredges up. This bit of high-class poetry dates back to fourth grade or so:

          “Birdie, birdie in the sky
          Dropped some white stuff in my eye.
          I’m a big girl, I won’t cry,
          I’m just glad that cows don’t fly.”

  2. What a great series of images. Must have been a real thrill to catch a photo of the juveniles. I notice your heron juveniles have the same flecked coat as ours in Australia.

    1. Yes, and the Yellow-crowned night herons have that brown and white patterning, as well. It can take a moment to distinguish the Black- and Yellow-crowned juveniles from some distance. Body shape, bill shape and size, and such other qualities can be decent clues.

      I often see the juveniles, but only after they’re out of the nest. In fact, this morning there was a young one still in its flecked coat standing on the main boom of the sailboat I’m currently working on. I’d wondered who was leaving all those white splotches around — I think I have a clue.

  3. Lovely images. Interesting that the egrets and the night herons are happy to share the rookery. Companion nesting must be akin to companion planting; mutually beneficial.

    1. There can be many species in some rookeries. Ibis, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, and a variety of herons all seem to tolerate one another. They’ll feed together as well, or gather up at good watering spots, like this one.

        1. I so enjoy seeing the mix of birds that appears from time to time. Sometimes I get the sense that they’re joined by circumstance as much as preference. When it’s windy, or droughty, or flooding, it seems as though there aren’t any limits to who’s accepted into the group. Of course, that happens with humans, too, as you well know. Come hurricane or flood or earthquake, birds of any sort of feather are willing to flock together.

    1. I’ve been roaming around in nature for a good number of years now, and I yet to experience a day that doesn’t hold something interesting, unusual, or unexpected. It could happen, I suppose — so I’ll keep roaming, just in case.

  4. What a great birding experience! And so close too! Not just the Night Herons but Egret on the same tree. Two birds with one stone.

    1. There are some neighborhoods where the occasional heron or two will build a nest, but so many birds together — and egrets among them! — was a real treat. The experience did confirm the value of following truly good bird photographers. When I saw the heron with the stick in its beak, I knew what was up because I’d seen photos of it. Otherwise, I might have thought nothing of it and walked away.

  5. In the fifth picture the night heron gave you a nice clear shot of its head. As you implied, birds are usually inconsiderate enough to let branches and leaves get in the way.

    1. I was pleased with that fifth photo: not only for the head shot, but also for the good look at those feet curling around the branches. It was interesting to watch the bird use those feet while it was arranging and rearranging its nest twigs. They’re far more dexterous than I’d realized.

        1. From time to time I’ll see the Black-crowned resting in trees in the afternoon, but their tendency to hunch down means their feet are covered, or only partially visible. It’s clear that those feet are made for wrapping around branches; I was pleased to discover I’d gotten such a detailed view of them.

    1. Most of the nest building I see involves doves, cardinals, or grackles. The dove nests most resemble these — sometimes it seems as though they just pile up the sticks willy-nilly. It is fun to watch them, although I sometimes wonder what it’s like for the kids to live in such ramshackle places!

  6. Fabulous photos and a great serendipitous experience for a bird watcher/photographer like you.

    1. Thanks for the good words about the photos, Jean. It was great fun almost literally stumbling over these critters, and who doesn’t love a baby bird? It was special to find some in the nest — and to find half of an empty egg shell on the ground. Both birds have pretty blue eggs, but I think the one I found belonged to an egret; it was pretty good sized. Whoever pecked its way out was neat, too. It was almost perfectly divided in half.

    1. Now I wonder how many of these nests I’ve missed through the years. I certainly was surprised to see them utilizing live oaks for their nests. I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t have expected that.

  7. Black-crowned Night Herons are such lovely birds. Despite the difficulties shooting through all the greenery, you got some great shots.

    Your stick gatherer is a cutie. I can just picture him/her busily going about the business of ‘shopping’ for nesting materials!

    Don’t those egret chicks look like little dinosaurs? LOL

    1. Everyone talks about the ugly duckling, but I’d say those egret chicks would make fine stand-ins. They aren’t cute in the way that baby mallards are cute — but it’s hard not to feel affection for them. And can you imagine having two or three of those big mouths to feed? That’s a lot of fishing time, right there.

      When I first moved into this new apartment, there was a black-crowned night heron that roosted in the live oak next to my parking area. I wonder now if there might have been a nest around at some time, and I just didn’t know it. I certainly will check out the live oaks a little more closely now.

  8. What great photos, Linda, and this post is a true testament to the rule to always have one’s camera handy! Yes, it would’ve been interesting for you to watch the nesting taking place, but this way, we all get to enjoy and learn from your experience. Aren’t those egret babies cute? I love their white feathers!

    1. I don’t always have my camera, especially if I’m going to be at work, but in this case, I could have easily enough run home for it. The birds certainly weren’t going anywhere; when you can’t yet fly and are stuck in a nest, there’s nothing left but to nag for food and pose for the camera.

      I really was pleased to find the egret chicks. They look about ready to fledge, although I read that they spend some time just bouncing from branch to branch before they try their wings.

    1. They do seem to have standards, don’t they? Maybe they use the Goldilocks approach to stick selection: “This one’s too long, and this one’s too short — but this one is just right!”

  9. Wonderful set of photos, Linda! We’ve had nesting Yellow-crowns in our neighborhood for years, they’re so fun to watch, but those nests are high up in foliage, so they can be hard to observe at times.

    1. Tell me about it. Trying to stare straight up into those trees while moving around was harder than getting down on the ground. I kept tripping on tree roots while trying to keep the camera focused on the birdies! I was a little surprised that there weren’t any Yellow-crowned nesting there; at least, I didn’t see any. Maybe the tree filled up with the other birds and there just wasn’t room for them.

    1. They really had the best of both worlds. The humans that run the marina have an underground sprinkler system installed that keeps the trees relatively lush, and it’s only a short flight for the parents to good fishing grounds in the marinas, the lake, and the canals surrounding it. If I had to feed those babies, I’d set up housekeeping in a spot like that, too!

  10. What a great opportunity and you did a fine job capturing so much of the behavior. The pose in the fifth shot is wonderful with such a nice view of that brilliant red eye and the feet gripping the branch.

    1. That fifth photo is perhaps the ‘best,’ but on the other hand, I was equally pleased with my ability to pick out at least the eyes in the photo of the three heron chicks and their parent, and I love the last photo, with the egret chick seeming to peek around the branch. Even when baby birds aren’t cute by human standards, they certainly can be interesting.

  11. It could be that this pair of Black Crowned Night Herons lost their previous nest (and chicks?) and are having to start over. Utility companies are frequently ruthless when they cut limbs around power lines. Also I can see how tree owners might not be best pleased by all the droppings and other assorted debris, especially if the tree shades a walkway, driveway (with cars!), patio, or lawn where children and/or pets are. They might take measures to destroy the nests because of the mess. The poop-to-bird ratio would be fairly high with a bird this size. Fuzzy Great Egret chicks! They look like they have a way to go before they’re fully fledged. The herons, egrets and cranes are such elegant birds.

    1. And if they started early enough, they might have been preparing for a second brood. Any nest loss can’t be blamed on power companies in this instance, since all the lines are underground. Beyond that, our power companies are fairly tolerant of nesting birds. The high tension towers are home every year to colonies of monk parakeets, and once they’ve set up shop, the nests aren’t removed until fledging is complete. There certainly is a mess in the parking area, but people learn fairly quickly the solution to that — they park in a different place.

      Isn’t the contrast between the egret chicks and egret adults wonderful? On the other hand, the expressions on the faces of those night heron chicks is equally striking. The chicks look demanding and almost angry; the parent looks resigned.

    1. There are some very well-known rookeries in the area, but most of them are either closed to the public during the nesting season, or some distance away. Having these cuties literally right down the street is amazing. Friends occasionally mention herons in their neighborhoods, but this truly was something special.

    1. I had the camera because I’d been given a tip about a herd of Longhorn cattle in the neighborhood, and had thought I’d swing by and see if they were in their field. Instead of cattle, I got birds: serendipity at its best!

    1. This is just slightly embarassing; I had no idea what APS-C meant. But of course I looked it up, and now I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the concept, as well as a hint of why my camera helped me with images like the fifth photo of the bird, particularly. It was a nice discovery, particularly since I’ve been somewhat ‘grounded’ for the month of June, and these avian families were close to home.

    1. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have lingered. I have been back a few times, and am hoping for better sky conditions this weekend, since the nesting still is going on.

  12. Wow, what an absolutely fantastic opportunity! Are you glad you stopped by that marina? I’ve only very rarely seen either of the two species of night herons and I’ve never seen them nesting. This does remind me of a time we visited a location to photograph the lotus flowers and found some adolescent night herons wandering around the paths seemingly unafraid of all the people also walking the paths. Do you plan to return to this location to see more?

    1. I stopped for business reasons rather than pleasure, but the birds certainly were lagniappe. Around here, the Black-crowned night herons stay mostly hidden during the day, but the Yellow-crowned often are out and about, probing drainage ditches for crawfish or snatching grasshoppers out of fields. They’re most visible in the early morning or at dusk, but they aren’t an uncommon sight. They’re relatively approachable, meaning that someone with even a minimal telephoto lens can get decent pictures of them.

      There’s still nesting going on, and I have stopped a few times. It’s been so beastly hot, and the skies have been so milky because of dust and such that I’ve not done any more photography. Sometimes, just enjoying the birds is enough.

  13. Lucky you. The only herons I see out here in my neighborhood are the little white cow birds thoughI saw a great blue on the roadside out where my daughter lives. I did have a juvenile heron visit my turtle pond once back when it still had goldfish in it but I don’t remember which species.

    1. It was a fun experience. It really amazes me that the birds nested in the midst of so much human activity, but I guess being so many feet up in the air, and being relatively concealed by the live oak branches adds to their confidence. I’ve heard stories of people losing goldfish to visiting herons — clearly, even the young ones can figure out where the buffet is.

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