PTOP: Yellow-Crowned Night Heron

“PTOP” stands for “Peace in the Time of Pandemic,” and this blog series is my offering to the common good to help us through this time of physical distancing and searching for new kinds of community. It will feature moments of peace, perhaps better conveyed by the Hebrew shalom, meaning harmony, wholeness, completeness.

So come along! Today we walk down a trail in Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge that traces a point of land jutting out into the lake on the east side of the boat ramp.

Those of you who live at higher elevations might accuse us Louisianans of defining “point of land” rather loosely. Indeed, there’s water on both sides of the trail most of the way, and between us and the open water of the lake lies 60-80 yards of no-man’s land: baldcypress trees and knees, patches of dark water, clumps of tall grass and other aquatic plants… in a word, swamp!

Suddenly, a large bird erupts out of a thick patch of sugarcane plumegrass 40 yards off the trail to the left. Hmm. Color of a great blue heron but not big enough. Standing perfectly still, I look back at where it came from.

Do I see a bit of silvery gray? Is that odd shape sticking up a bird’s head? Probably a chunk of wood! But that sure looks like a beak…. The 300mm lens is on the camera; winged creatures are today’s mission.

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

It’s not until about the third trip of the shutter that I’m pretty sure I am in fact looking a bird in the eye! Then I begin slowly, carefully to move a little closer for a cleaner shot. A slender finger of grass-covered dry land extends from the trail toward her, and I inch along it, keeping a sharp eye on where I put my feet.

I get a few yards closer. She stands her ground, keeping that big orangey-red-ringed eye fixed on me. But now there are no more shrubs and small trees to hide my movements. If I go farther, she will surely fly.

Why am I calling her “she”? Of course, I don’t know, but the story I saw: She’s got a nest nearby. Night herons are known to nest in isolated pairs in precisely this kind of habitat.* “He” flew, perhaps to try to lead me on down the trail. “She” stays behind to guard the nest. Mother birds are beyond fierce.

So… I click off a few more frames, and then she turns and strides back into the thicket, out of sight. I get one more shot as she goes, which might be my fave!

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea)

And when I get home, I confirm: yellow-crowned night heron–an addition to my life list and an endangered species. Wow!

Peace be with you all! #PTOP #PeaceintheTimeofPandemic

*Birdist Rule #115: Learn to Identify and Differentiate Night-Herons, by Nicholas Lund on the Audubon.org website.

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