By Peter Vankevich
Ocracoke is a pretty good island to see a family of wading birds known as herons, egrets and bitterns. Twelve species are possible, though two are rare; the Reddish Egret that occasionally strays from its range in the South and the secretive Least Bittern.
The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea), can be seen primarily from spring into early fall.
These herons nest in trees and thick bushes, sometimes in small colonies including other herons, or they may have solitary nests. Unlike the other birds in this family, they are more tolerant of human activity and may nest in neighborhoods if they find a location that can conceal their nest. For the past two summers at least, they have nested in the backyards of village houses.
By far, their preferred prey is crustaceans, crabs along the coast and crayfish inland, but they will also feed on insects, fish and lizards and amphibians. Highly sedentary foragers, they will wait patiently or move slowly then suddenly lunge with its bill to capture its prey, swallowing it whole, or if it is a large crab, thrash it into pieces. Like owls, any indigestible material, such as crab shells, is ejected in a pellet.
Their arrival on Ocracoke in the spring coincides when crabs come into season, especially when the fiddler crabs emerge from their burrows. Particularly from mid-summer into fall, they will hunt the abundant fiddler crabs along the sandy roads of the island.
Yellow-crowned Night Herons are found only in the Americas–from South America and the Caribbean as far north as Connecticut. Inland, their range extends from the Gulf Coast up to middle reaches of Mississippi River and eastward to the coast.
Throughout their range, they are most likely to be seen on barrier and bay islands, and inland in swamps, forested wetlands, lakes, rivers and creeks. After heavy rains, they may be seen foraging on lawns and in plowed fields.
In spite of their name, these birds they are active in both day and night. During breeding season, their peak feeding times are early morning and night.
Their call is a loud squawk.
Ocracoke also is home to the Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax). This shorter stockier bird with an all-black head is far more common and may be seen here throughout the year. Primarily nocturnal, these birds can be seen in flight from sunset into the night and sometimes roosting on the pilings in Silver Lake.
Distinguishing the two adult night-herons in the field is relatively easy.
The adult plumage of the Yellow-crowned Night Heron consists of a black head and pale crown and white cheek patch. The neck and body are bluish gray. Their overall appearance can vary depending on their posture. When the neck is crouched it appears to be short and stocky. When they extend their long neck, they take on a more slender and graceful appearance.
Adult Black-crowned Night-Herons have a pale body and face, gray wings, and a blueish-black crown and back. In breeding season both sexes have long plumes.
Immature (or juvenile) yellow-crowns are brown with fine, buffy spots on the back and wings and pale streaky underparts. The bill is black.
Immature black-crowns are more chunky with a shorter neck and legs and the wings have large white spots on a brown back. The bill of a juvenile is dark on top and green to yellowish on the bottom, the lores are sometimes a greenish color.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
When to see: In early spring to fall.
Where: Springer’s Point, along South Point Road and the sandy roads on island where they feed on fiddler crabs, and shallow parts on the sound side. They nest in the village, but are concealed.
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks checklist.