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Picture walks: The black-crowned night heron

By Jeanne Church

In late May of this year, I went to the Cranbrook Gardens in Bloomfield Hills for a picture walk. Cranbrook has over 20 beautiful gardens spread across 40 acres of well-tended land surrounding the historic Cranbrook House. Cranbrook Gardens is a private facility but it is open to the public free of charge. I went there in hope of finding a rich variety of butterflies among all the colorful flowers. Instead, I found a bird that I had never seen before in Michigan, a black-crowned night heron.

I had inadvertently wandered down a narrow, rarely used trail that skirted a small pond. It was a short, slightly overgrown trail and I almost missed this elusive heron sitting stoically on a branch at water’s edge. Before he could disappear, I quickly looked for an opening in the foliage where I could get a few good shots. But there was no need to hurry. He sat there for dozens of pictures before finally calling it a day.

Later, I was surprised to learn that black-crowned night herons are quite common here in Michigan, and that they can actually be found year-round in the eastern half of our southern peninsula. Even more surprising to me was the fact that black-crowned night herons are the most widespread heron species in the world, breeding on every continent except Australia and Antarctica! I expect that my encounters have been few and far between because these are night herons. Unlike their frequently seen counterparts, the great blue heron and the green heron, who hunt during the day, the black-crowned night heron hunts during the evening hours through early morning. However, if there are youngsters to be fed, the black-crowned night heron may also be found foraging during the day.

This is a medium-sized heron with a stocky, compact build, black crown, whitish to pale gray belly, gray body, and bright, red eyes. It also has a thick neck, a large, flat head, a stout, black bill, and short legs.

The black-crowned night heron often spends its days perched on tree limbs or concealed among foliage and branches. It likes to forage in a wide variety of habitats, including swamps, streams, ponds, lakes, mud flats, ditches, and wet agricultural fields, eating anything from plants to insects, leeches, clams, crayfish, reptiles, and amphibians.

If you’re walking through a park or a preserve close to water at dusk, listen for the squawks and clucks of the black-crowned night heron. It almost sounds like barking. The best-known vocalization for the black-crowned night heron is a “quawk”, which is most often made while the bird is perched somewhere in the evening, or while it is in flight. When threatened, the black-crowned night heron may also let out a “rok-rok” sound.

When you have the time to go wandering along the water’s edge at dusk or even in the early morning hours, you might be lucky enough to find one of these elusive birds hidden in the nearby branches. Keep an eye out for a stocky black and white bird that’s slightly bigger than the American crow, and listen carefully for its distinctive but peculiar sounding “quawk”!

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