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”!

Plan for improving Vicksburg Middle School ELA

By Jef Rietsma

The Vicksburg school district’s curriculum director, Gail Van Daff, outlined proposals for improving language skills of middle school students in a June presentation to the school board.

The proposals are intended to counter problems revealed in standardized testing following the pandemic.

“We celebrated, certainly, the areas where we met our target and we agonized over the areas that we did not,” Van Daff said. “We want you and our families to know we are not where we want to be, where we know we need to be for our students and where we know we can get to with our students.”

Results in some cases are not due to a lack of effort, a lack of care or a lack of dedication from teachers, Van Daff said.

“As I talk with curriculum directors in other districts, they, too, (experience) struggling,” she added. “Particularly at the middle school, to come out (from) where we were in the pandemic. Not an excuse, but it does explain that middle school is having a really tough time coming out of the pandemic.”

“This year, we started a complete review of our English courses at the middle school,” she said. “We’re looking at resources, time allocation, lesson planning and instruction to better support students in learning.”

Among the proposals:

  • Re-establishing the culture of reading in all classrooms, not just in English.
  • Helping students to review their own data in order to take that data seriously and personally, and help them chart their growth.
  • “Analyzing data at the student level, not just stopping with the aggregate numbers, but actually digging down and looking at who are these students and which students do we need to move to small-group instruction,” she said.
  • ELO intervention – expanded learning opportunities at the middle school. “We looked at how we can better allocate time within those periods as well as use our assessment data better to inform our instruction,” Van Daff said.
  • Analyzing attendance data at the middle school and student engagement, and how those two factors might play into student achievement.
  • “Lastly, summer services have not been an effective format,” she noted. “In fact, we sent over a hundred letters out to students at the middle school level for summer school and got eight positive responses back. Of those, not all those students would be able to attend all the days. So, we’re going at it a little bit differently than bringing the students in.”

    “We’re going to provide some additional instruction over the summer but we’re going to do a more intentional after-school programming and support next year while the kids are actually there and we’ll do some intervention with them at that point,” she said.