Sometimes a place just gets to you, which is what happened when I went to The Marine Nature Study Area in Oceanside early this June with two birders. With a tidal salt marsh and boardwalk spread over 52 acres, the wildlife area looked more like Cape Cod than Nassau County. I'm charmed before we even start to walk.
The heron, looking crazy-wild, came fast and low over the grasses, feathers ruffled by the gusting wind, and landed some distance away atop a small birdhouse. The shades-of-brown heron, obviously an immature bird, appeared to be waiting for another, perhaps an adult. It was either a black-crowned or yellow-crowned night-heron; and good luck discerning which one. Both of these herons are chunky birds, approximately 24-inches in length. I knew how difficult it was to identify immature herons. Several months before I had seen a just-days-old heron in Florida, which looked like Daffy Duck dipped in gray tar. Its identity, black-crowned or yellow-crowned, was never resolved.
My friend and I set up our scopes to examine the heron that had just flown in. We noted various white spots, yellowish legs and perhaps the beginnings of a yellow crown. The bill, which was just a little too broad and thick to be proportional to the bird, drew our attention. Occasional drops of water formed on it. Like two birding detectives we examined the clues and when we moved on we were 50-50; it could have been either a black-crowned or a yellow-crowned. This dialogue was to continue as we walked.
A little while later we come upon a mature yellow-crowned night-heron walking in a dry waterbed, its breeding plumage alive with color. The heron is striking as it walks around slowly close to us in the afternoon sunlight. It is also the object of a number of other people's attention including a photographer with a long lens. The bird's head at first glance appears black-yellow. It had a black head with a swatch of light yellow on the crown and a smaller teardropped shaped yellow patch below either red/orange eye. The back was a delicate painting from the lightest to the darkest shades of gray divided by fine white lines. The dagger shaped bill was broad with a slight curve. Barely visible to the naked eye were three shorebirds, called yellowlegs, which were walking slowly, camouflaged by the muck and weed. To my surprise there was also a black-crowned night-heron in the mud flat. This place was something else.
We move on passing almost underneath an osprey platform. One of its residents rises straight up, furiously flapping brown wings, showing us its white breast and belly. Battling the stiff wind gusts it rises up, up and flies off. What power and fiery-eyed majesty! I have a touch of guilt: did we make it fly off?
A minute later there's another yellow-crown. After dropping a clamshell that it had no possibility of opening, the bird then gets a crab in its bill, which is wriggling for its life. The heron walks with it and drops the crustacean in the muck. Positioning the crab the heron then slams its bill into it, driving the creature into the mud. The heron pulls up the crab, which is now under a "bedspread" of seaweed. The heron repeats this until the crab lies unmoving in its bill. Now the yellow-crown starts to move the crab back toward its open pink mouth. After a while the heron moves the crab almost to its mouth and in a milisecond the crab disappears. My friend, an astute observer, comments that the heron's bill is made for pounding. I think back to the immature heron we saw a while ago and how we thought its bill appeared overly large. Perhaps it was a yellow-crown.
We soon see another immature heron, this one shades of gray, brown and a light copper color. It is so subtle and sedate looking, standing in shallow water near a mud bank. My friend now notes how this one stands up straight while the black-crowns tend to hunch slightly. Mark this one a yellow-crown. Within minutes we find, yet again, another yellow-crown in the mud flats. Man, this is yellow-crown city! Its feet are muddied and the heron moves like an experienced hunter. I'm anxious to see what it will take. How will it use that bill? The yellow-crown plucks a worm from the glop and holding the invertebrate in its bill, drops the creature near the water then picks it up and swallows it. " A measly worm," I mutter and the heron flies off.
I stand there reflecting on the herons, mature and immature that we've seen here this afternoon. The mating season is just past and the immatures are the fruit of DNA at work. Through instinct and learning they are beginning to stand beside their elders. Just then a human mother and her young son go over to one of the wood board displays and she shows him the relationship between some birds and fish illustrated in the case. Thinking that I may contribute to the making of an incipient naturalist, I walk over and point to the herons and then to the crabs saying " these guys just love crabs." Without missing a beat the kid bends backwards looking up at me and emphatically says, " I don't! " I can't help but smile. Not only does this place have charm, and birds, it also has laughs.