Tuesday, 2 August 2016

A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Halifax

I am back on the east coast of Canada for just under a week; my fifteenth trip over the last 7 years to visit Laura and her family. The Bond's are based out of Mt. Uniacke, about 30 minutes from the Halifax/Dartmouth area, and whenever I have the opportunity I like to travel down towards the coast for some birding. This morning I had a few hours free while Laura was busy packing up her life for the move to Ontario, so I took her car down the familiar highway to the Eastern Passage past Dartmouth. My destination was Hartlen Point, located at the northeast part of Halifax Harbour, and one of the more popular birding locations in the province. Partly due to its proximity to the metropolitan area of Halifax/Dartmouth, Hartlen Point is birded regularly and has a long list of rarities that have been discovered here. One of the rarest was a Eurasian Kestrel that spent several months along the golf course near the point during the winter of  2014-2015. I was fortunate enough to be in the province over Christmas when it was found and observed it along with Laura. Last August I also birded Hartlen Point for a few hours and turned up an American Oystercatcher, the first record for the Halifax Regional Municipality. Needless to say it is a place that I love going back to whenever I have the chance!

Osprey - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

I passed both pairs of nesting Ospreys (the above bird carrying some sort of tasty morsel) and walked through a grassy field towards the water's edge.

 Hartlen Point - HRM, Nova Scotia

While walking along the pebble-strewn shoreline towards the area known as "Back Cove", I kept an eye out for shorebirds as this stretch occasionally holds a small flock. A single Whimbrel called out and flew across the channel to the other side, but other than a few resident Spotted Sandpipers there was not much to be found. I glanced up towards the sedge meadow in Back Cove and was stopped dead in my tracks as I noticed the distinctive shape of a heron along the water's edge. A quick look with my binoculars confirmed my suspicions that it was an immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.

It flew back into the sedges, only its head visible whenever it crouched down.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

Fortunately the heron was more concerned with the minnows it was catching than my slow approach and I was able to stealthily walk up to within a reasonable distance for photos. The time was mid-day so the lighting was not ideal, but with a thin cloud layer at times the harsh shadows were somewhat reduced.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

While Black-crowned Night-Heron is a local breeding species in parts of Nova Scotia, Yellow-crowned is the more likely of the two species to show up in Halifax. Along with several other southern herons like Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron and Tricolored Heron, it is not unusual for a few individuals to appear north of their breeding range along the east coast of Canada. Usually a handful of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons appear in Nova Scotia each year during the late spring, summer and early autumn and in most cases the birds arriving in the summer are young birds such as this one.

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia
While Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons have very different adult plumages, the young birds can appear surprisingly similar. I find that their shape is very different however - Black-crowned has a more compact, dumpier shape with a thick neck, while Yellow-crowned is lankier and stands up "taller" with its thinner neck extended. Plumage features of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons (with that of Black-crowned in brackets) to separate the two species include:

-mostly dark bill (bicolored bill with extensive yellow on lower mandible);
-stout bill (thinner, sharper bill);
-darker, colder plumage tones (lighter, browner plumage);
-small white spots and thin, white edging to wing coverts (large white spots on wing coverts); and,
-narrow, distinct breast streaks (brown, blurry breast streaks).

immature Yellow-crowned Night-Heron - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

I soon continued on my way, checking the alders and other trees in the Back Cove for rare migrant songbirds without much success, then continuing back the way I came along the shoreline. The tide was going out and I encountered a few more shorebirds - Least Sandpipers, both Yellowlegs, and a Black-bellied Plover. At least 9 Whimbrels were along the rocky coastline and tolerated my presence long enough to take a few somewhat distant photos.

Whimbrels - Hartlen Point, HRM, Nova Scotia

It was another great visit to Harlen Point - what will show up on the next visit?

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