Rare Herons

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Ottawa was blessed with not one, but two rare birds in late May and early June. On May 25th I received word of a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron west of Carp. It was on private property, and while the homeowner didn’t want people wandering around her large property uninvited, she was gracious enough to escort interested birders around if we waited at the end of the driveway for her to come and get us.

I went out on the last day of May to try to see it, killing time along the Thomas Dolan Parkway as I didn’t want to show up too early. It was a miserable day – cold, overcast, and only 8°C. I didn’t feel like spending much time outside, but I did check a few spots for Golden-winged Warblers and Eastern Towhees without any luck. When I arrived at the property on Abbeywood Drive, one car was already there, but the driver appeared to be sleeping. Mary, the homeowner, came out about 10 minutes after I parked my car; by that time the other driver, Paul Lagasi, had awakened, and the three of us went around to her huge backyard together to search for the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Her property boasts a large pond which is home to three families of Canada Geese and many dragonfly species (though none were flying that day) and a creek at the back which attracts various herons (including nesting Green Herons and the Yellow-crowned Night-heron). We also observed Eastern Bluebirds, a few different warblers, and three different flycatchers (Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, and Eastern Wood-pewee), all of which made me jealous of her yard list. Unfortunately Paul and I did not find the heron or the Mourning Warbler that others had heard the day before, so we both went home empty-handed.

On Tuesday, June 2nd I was checking my email on the bus on the way home from work when I saw an email stating that a Little Egret was being seen in the Carp River just north of March Road. This was a bird I’d never even heard of; it certainly wasn’t on my radar when I visited Florida, and when I Googled it I found out that it was an Old World species found in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, Indonesia, and more recently, the Caribbean. Similar in appearance to the Snowy Egret, it is a small white heron with black legs, yellow feet, grayish lores, a straight, dark bill, and two long, white plumes reaching the middle of the neck. As it is extremely rare – this is the first Ontario record of this species! – I decided to take off to Carp as soon as my fiance got home with the car.

I arrived on Rivington Street at about 6:35 pm. The egret was in plain view, although a large distance from the end of Rivington Street where a number of birders were standing with their scopes. I had forgotten mine in my excitement, but a friend let me use his to see the diagnostic features. I took a couple of photos too; what is striking is how small it is compared to the nearby Canada Geese (click to enlarge).

Little Egret

Little Egret

Unfortunately it flew out of view about 30 seconds after I first spotted it. About 10 minutes later, I left as well.

Two days later, I heard that the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was being seen again in the same neighbourhood as before, this time on the front lawn of a different house. Again I was eager enough to go after work, and met Chris Traynor there. He arrived long before me, and had watched it walk from the lawn of one house into a cedar hedge separating the yard from the neighbour’s. I held my breath to see if it would reappear, and it did – but on the neighbour’s side, where a tall hedge blocked the lawn from the road. We moved to the end of the driveway and saw it walking slowly about like a large Killdeer or robin searching for worms.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was one of the birds I wanted to see in Florida but ended up missing. As such, it was a lifer for me – but one I never expected to see in Ottawa! Although they are primarily a bird of southern swamps and coastlines, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron can also be found as far north as Indiana and Illinois where they breed along wooded streams. They are a rare vagrant to Ontario, appearing infrequently in the southern part of the province; last year a juvenile spent several weeks in a park along Toronto’s lakeshore. This is the first one that had been seen in Ottawa since I first started birding, and I was glad it was an adult in breeding plumage!

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

The bird moved out of view, but Chris and I found a vantage point on the ground beneath the hedge at the corner of the property. We were well-screened, and the heron wandered closer and closer as it foraged in the grass. The diet of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is quite varied and includes prey such as crabs, crayfish, fish, insects, snails, earthworms, marine worms, leeches, lizards, snakes, young birds, mice, and small rabbits.

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Unfortunately, the sun had gone behind a thick bank of clouds, and was dropping closer and closer to the western horizon. This made photography difficult; still, I was happy to capture some decent close-ups of this rare visitor to Ottawa!

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

With my habit of missing rare birds because of work and various transportation issues (including my reluctance to drive long distances across the city) I was thrilled to get two new life birds in two days – and one real rarity at that!

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5 thoughts on “Rare Herons

  1. Congrats. That should make your top 5 list of the year 🙂 I saw a YCNH fly right over us last weekend. First one I’ve seen in years, though I’ve not been looking.

    • Definitely! I don’t think I’ll ever get two lifers in two days again in Ottawa.

      Say, we have another one of your birds up here: Couch’s Kingbird (it may be a Tropical Kingbird, but people are leaning toward Couch’s based on photos taken yesterday) – it was photographed on an island on the Ottawa River accessible only by boat and hasn’t been re-located yet. How did so many southern species end up in Ottawa this month?!

      • Hi Gillian. Sorry, I haven’t been on WP much this year. Couch’s is a bit too far south for me, but way too far north for you! Maybe it rode the tropical storm in May. I’ve been so busy getting settled in my house. A fair amount of new wildlife here which I’ll get to post about someday.

  2. We have a pair of what look like green herons at 27 Link Dr. We are friends with Paul so texted him. What made me notice the birds were the very yellow legs.

    • Hi Valerie, a small heron could be a Green Heron, or a Black-crowned Night Heron – both have yellow legs. However, Green Herons have a definite greenish colour to them, while immature Night Herons are brown and speckled with white (adults are noticeably white and not likely to be confused with Green Herons). They are neat birds to have around!

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