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Yellow-crowned night heron visiting Iowa
Bird-watching: August is an active month
Brandon Caswell - correspondent
Jul. 27, 2021 1:18 pm
Of the seven regularly occurring heron and egret species in Iowa, perhaps the most enigmatic is the yellow-crowned night heron.
Although it may be considered regular, it is certainly rare to find.
Yellow-crowned night heron is found in the summer throughout much of the Midwest, southern New England, nearly all of the Southeast, and in Oklahoma and eastern Texas. They can be found year-round along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and throughout Florida, including most of the Gulf of Mexico coast. The species also occurs from Baja California, south throughout Mexico, Central America, and mostly coastal South America.
Throughout Iowa, the species can mainly be found from April to late September. Most reports cluster from mid-April through May and from late June to mid-August.
Yellow-crowned night heron has pretty spontaneous whereabouts throughout the state of Iowa, even annually. The first specimen was recorded by John James Audubon in May of 1843 near Council Bluffs. The first rookery was found in May of 1956 in Polk County. Johnson, Louisa and Des Moines counties have had the most reports in terms of Eastern Iowa counties.
An adult yellow-crowned nigh heron is unmistakable. They have a mostly black head with whitish to light yellowish cheek, reddish orange eye and light-yellowish to whitish crown with a white plume trailing off the back of the head. The body is primarily gray with long, yellow legs.
Juveniles are similar in appearance to their closely related cousin, the black-crowned night heron. Juvenile yellow-crowned is largely brownish overall with light streaks throughout the head and neck. The backside, including wing tips, have white spotting. The legs are long and a yellowish green.
One way to tell the difference from a juvenile black-crowned is the bill on yellow-crowned is mostly dark, whereas it is mostly yellow on the black-crowned. Juvenile yellow-crowned has smaller, white spots along the margins of its wing coverts and backside. Also, yellow-crowned has seemingly longer legs than black-crowned.
Looking for yellow-crowned night herons is hard given their habitat preference. While they are considered nocturnal, they will forage in the day. In coastal settings, they can be pretty conspicuous along tidal creeks while they slowly hunt for crabs and crayfish. In Iowa, they can be found in backwater areas, such as oxbows or in flooded riparian habitat. Marshes that provide an abundance of food may also be utilized.
Don’t forget the insect repellent if you decide to venture out for the chance to find one of these rare and beautiful herons.
BIRDS OF AUGUST
Many birders will attest August is when birdwatching really gets exciting again. August is the start of fall (August through November) when it comes to bird seasonal records. Migration starts to pick up for many species:
- Shorebirds will peak in numbers and diversity. In Eastern Iowa this tends to happen around mid-August, but the timing can vary. Right now it appears conditions will be dry in August, but things can quickly change. Low water levels may produce lots of shorebird habitat, but this can thin numbers out as there may be too much. Just the right level of water will create just enough habitat to concentrate numbers, while also providing good viewing conditions. In the event that August gets really wet, agricultural fields along floodplains can create “fluddles,” also called sheet water, where shorebirds may congregate. Sheet water adjacent to a road can offer great viewing.
- August is an excellent time to see pelicans and other wading birds such as herons and egrets. At Hawkeye WMA, August tends to be near the peak of the staging of great egrets and just before the peak of American white pelican, which happens in September. The DNR headquarters area, along Amana Rd NW, offers great views of herons, egrets and pelicans in the evening, when they come back from feeding to roost along muddy flats and sandbars on the big pool area. In the past several years, this location has hosted two very rare waders in August: Roseate spoonbill and white ibis.
- While September usually is the peak for wood warbler and other passerine migration back south, late August can produce some excellent warbler viewing.
- Look for sedge wren in restored prairies and other grassland areas. Listen for their loud, metallic trill, which may vary in speed. Be careful not to mix this song up with an alternate song of dickcissel, which can sound very similar.
Brandon Caswell has a keen interest in natural and social sciences. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography in his spare time. He resides with his wife and two young children in Marion.