By Kathleen McMenamin, Master Naturalist
Yellow Crowned Night Herons are a common sight during Hilton Head summers. These beautiful birds can be found during the day or night, foraging in a number of different Lowcountry habitats. Keep an eye out along our local canals, nests can be found in trees overhanging the water.
Yellow Crowned Night Herons, Nyctanassa violacea, are a medium-sized stocky heron that grow to be just over two feet tall. Mature adults have a black face and bill with white cheeks, and gray bodies with long yellow legs. The easiest way to identify them is by their yellow crest, found on the top of their head. Immature herons are common these times of the year, as young are preparing to fledge the nest. The young are brown with white spots all over and have a black beak and yellow legs.
These birds live in diverse habitats – from marshes and mangrove swamps to wooded forests, lakes and rivers. They can be found throughout the Southern United States, spread all the way to the Great Lakes in small numbers. They are even occasionally found in the Caribbean. Hilton Head offers them a diverse environment rich with food and nesting habitats. Yellow crowns can be found foraging in the marshes or along freshwater canals. The Sea Pines Forest Preserve is a great place to see them nesting.
The shallow waters of our area provide a great variety of food for the yellow crowns. They predominantly stalk our marshes for crustaceans. Insects, small fish and even small reptiles diversify their diet. Yellow crowns stalk their food by standing very still or slowly walking up and down a bank. Once prey has been spotted they will strike with their bill. Small prey will be swallowed hole, while larger prey may be shaken until they break apart, crushed or speared by the beak. But yellow crowns are solitary creatures and prefer to forage alone.
They tend to be monogamous and nest in the same area year after year. Nesting begins in April and continues through June. Courtship is a series of neck stretches and flashes of their golden crest to each other. Once the pair has bonded, the female will choose a spot over the water, usually in a wax myrtle tree, to nest while the male gathers branches. Once the base nest has been created, the pair works together to finish the nest. They will collect dead branches off of trees as opposed to picking them up from the ground. They will finish the nest by lining it with Spanish moss and the female will lay two to six eggs, once a year. Incubation of the eggs lasts about 25 days and the young will stay in and around the nest for up to 35 days. Although these birds are more solitary than other herons, they have been observed nesting in small colonies.
Yellow Crowned Night Herons are a species of concern for the state of South Carolina.
Maintaining their habitat is the prime way to help increase their population. Historically, they were over hunted for their plumage and as food resources. Today they are protected, as well as land across the south east being preserved in order to increase their numbers. Yellow crowns have also been a great benefit to Bermuda. The bird was introduced in order to help maintain the ground crab populations. So far their introduction has been a great success.
The H2O Nature Center is a great place to spark curiosity and inspire learning in all ages, offering eco adventure tours and live alligator exhibit. To make reservations for the Alligator and Wildlife Tour, please call (843) 686-5323. For details on other water activities offered by H2O Sports, visit www.H2OSports.com.