2013-09-26 / Nature

Nighttime in the Marsh

By Jack Kelly

Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron. Adult Black-crowned Night-Heron. The wetlands of Newport County and the islands of Narragansett Bay offer foraging, nesting, and breeding shelter to many intriguing wading bird species during the spring and summer months. Wading birds and long-legged waterbirds such as Egrets, Herons, Bitterns, Ibises and Night-Herons may be observed in many of the salt and freshwater habitats across the region. With the climax of the fall migration cycle approaching in the next two weeks, these species have begun to stage (gather for migration) in wetlands throughout Aquidneck Island. While the majority of these birds are diurnal (active by day), a few breeds are nocturnal (active by night) and display unique behaviors.

During the past week there has been a large staging of Night- Herons in the Gooseneck Cove/ Price’s Neck Cove area of Newport. Local and visiting bird watchers have been treated to the sight of up to 40 adult and juvenile Blackcrowned Night-Herons and possibly six Yellow-crowned Night-Herons just after dusk. Night-Herons, as their name implies, forage extensively between dusk and dawn. However, they have been known to occasionally take prey during daylight hours.

Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. Juvenile Black-crowned Night-Heron. The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a widespread species that nests in both freshwater and saltwater wetlands across most of the United States and southern Canada. It winters on the southern Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, as well as along the Gulf Coast and points south along the Mexican and Central American coasts.

The average adult is about two feet long with a wingspan of about 44 inches. Breeding adults have a deep black crown and back with pale white plumage below. Its short, usually yellow legs turn a rich pink during breeding season and it may display a white “nuptial plume” from the back of its head. It has a long, pointed, yellow and black bill and orange-red eyes. In flight, only its toes project beyond its tail. After breeding season, the bird’s plumage will dull a bit, but it will maintain its black crown and back.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Black-crowned juveniles are about the same size as the adults but have a light brown plumage above, with large white spots on its wings and back. It is light-colored below, with indistinct streaking on the throat and breast. It has a long, pointed bill with yellowish coloring, pale yellow legs, and orangereddish eyes. The juveniles take roughly two years to mature.

The Black-crowned is an omnivore that stalks prey slowly and deliberately. It feeds on fish, crabs, and amphibians, but it will also take small vertebrates and the nestlings of other birds. This species has an alarm or flight call that consists of an abrupt “Wok!”

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a scarce migrant to our region, as Rhode Island is on the far northern reach of its nesting range along the Atlantic coast. The bird’s nesting range also spreads along the southern tier of the United States Midwest, the Gulf Coast, and the Pacific coast of Mexico.

The average adult Yellowcrowned is about two feet long with a wingspan of about 43 inches. Breeding adults have a black head, white cheek stripe, and a yellow crown. It has an all-over slate-gray plumage, orange-red eyes, and a thick, dark, heavy bill, as well as long yellow legs that turn orange during breeding season. In flight, its legs and feet extend well beyond its tail, unlike the Blackcrowned. The bird’s heavy bill is well suited for prey such as fish, fiddler crabs, blue crabs, and crayfish. This species is also an omnivore that will take vertebrate prey.

Juvenile Yellow-crowns are about the same size as the adults, but have brown plumage with small white spots above and light plumage with distinct light-brown streaks below. They have long yellow legs, orange-red eyes, and dark, thick bills. It takes about two years for the juveniles to mature. The alarm or flight call of the Yellow-crown is flatter and higher than that of the Black-crown, consisting of a sharp “Kwok!”

While both of these species are formidable night predators, they also face the risk of becoming prey. A Great Horned Owl has been sighted in Gooseneck Cove on multiple occasions since mid-August, arriving just after dusk and perching in trees along the perimeter of the wetlands. The Great Horned is a large and powerful nocturnal hunting bird that is a resident species across most of North America. The average adult is 22 inches long, with a wingspan of 44 inches. It has large talons, broad wings, and prominent ear tufts on the sides of its head. Its dark, cryptic coloring and its silent wings make it a formidable avian predator in the wetlands.

Great Horned Owls prey on skunks, opossums, rabbits, mice, snakes, other owls, and birds as large as Bitterns and Night-Herons. Weighing an average of 2.6 pounds, the owl is able to lift three times its weight and has been known to take small domesticated animals as well.

This dynamic and unique display of nature will continue for only a short time. It is well worth the effort to visit the wetlands and the cove for a first-hand look at these bird species.

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