The Season of the Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

One of the best parts of mid- to late summer is seeing all the young birds that have left the nest foraging and learning how to survive in the wild. Some secretive species become a little more visible after post-breeding dispersal, and this includes one of my favourite types of birds, the herons. Once they arrive in the spring, they can be difficult to find outside of a few well-known rookeries once breeding season gets under way, as they prefer secluded bodies of water well away from human activity. However, once the young fledge and leave their nesting grounds, herons begin to appear in shallow ponds and creeks in local parks, both adults and young alike.

The storm water ponds on Eagleson are a great place to see herons – all four regularly occurring species can be found here from mid-summer to late fall. When I first started birding here back in 2006 I had noticed it was a good spot to see Great Blue Herons and Black-crowned Night-herons, and counted – if memory serves me correctly – about nine Black-crowned Night-herons along the edges of the pond late one afternoon! This was back when there were cattail-filled nooks and crannies along the western edge of the central pond, and no houses or walking trail where people could disturb them. In 2010 I saw my first Great Egret here, as they were becoming more common in Ottawa at that time, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I saw my first Green Heron here.

Black-crowned Night-herons are still common at the ponds, even with the reduced cattail habitat and large amount of people using the walking path that now entirely circles the ponds. On August 8th I headed over to the ponds after work for a quick walk and counted six of them – my highest total recorded in eBird to date (four days later I beat that number with a total of 8 night-herons, including three juveniles and five adults)!

This adult was standing on a rock in the southern-most pond, preening in the soft light of the sunset.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

I think these birds are quite striking with their sharp black, white and gray colours, and bright red eyes.

Black-crowned Night-Heron

Three other night-herons were perching on the rocks further out; I took this shot to show them all together. The one in front is a juvenile, and has quite a different appearance than the adults in the background.

Black-crowned Night-Herons

Two Great Blue Herons were the only other herons present that evening, and I was happy to see five Killdeer, two Least Sandpipers, six Spotted Sandpipers, a Solitary Sandpiper, and a Greater Yellowlegs – shorebird migration has begun! Also impressive was the steady stream of Red-winged Blackbirds flying up from the farm fields to the south to the cattail-filled ponds on the other side of Eagleson Road – I estimated about 1,300 of them, counting in groups of 50 or less.

Andrew Haydon Park on the Ottawa River is another good spot to see herons in the late summer and fall. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets hunt for fish in the shallow waters of the western bay on the river, while Green Herons and Black-crowned Night-herons are more often seen along the banks of the creek or the edges of the ponds. One Green Heron was standing on a rock in the eastern pond, unperturbed by a photographer taking its photograph. It is a juvenile, and still had some fuzzy white natal down on top of its head.

Green Heron (Juvenile)

I was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron in the small creek near the island. It, too, paid no attention to the silly human with the camera as it watched the small fish intently. I probably could have walked right up to it, but the zoom on my camera sufficed.

Great Blue Heron (juvenile)

The heavy streaking on the neck and the pale scallops on the edges of the wing and back feathers indicate that this is a juvenile.

Great Blue Heron (juvenile)

On August 19th I was able to get closer to one of the young night-herons at the Eagleson ponds. This gap in the concrete wall is a popular place for the herons to watch for small fish in the shallow water below.

Black-crowned Night-Heron (juvenile)

All four species of heron were present that afternoon, including one juvenile Great Blue Heron, one egret, two Green Herons, and one other night-heron. I didn’t get any decent photos of the Great Egrets. They are more difficult to approach than the other herons, and tend to be much further out in the water. Still, I enjoy seeing all of our regularly occurring species, especially the young ones that can appear so tame. They will be common until the water freezes up in late fall; while the Green Herons are usually the first to go, Great Blue Herons have been known to linger into December! They and the Black-crowned Night-herons are also the first to return in late March or early May, as they are both hardy species that can tolerate a little cold.

Their close relatives, the bitterns, are much more secretive, much less tolerant of human activity, and consequently much harder to find, preferring secluded, dense cattail-filled ponds. They are more often found in the spring when they can be heard calling, but are seldom seen. At least their more colourful cousins are easy to find!

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