A Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Orange County

Sub-adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Sub-adult Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

We recently visited Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve to look for the reported juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. This is one of those location, location, location things. If you’re in Florida, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is a ho-hum sort of bird. But in California, where for decades the nearest breeding population of these night-herons was down in Baja somewhere, it’s a pretty uncommon bird. In recent years, a small Yellow-crowned Night-Heron population has become established in an apartment complex in Imperial Beach, CA, in the shadow of Tijuana. Even so, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron away from there is newsworthy in southern California. This immature bird is only the second confirmed record for Orange County, the first one being in 1977 at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (per The Birds of Orange County, Status and Distribution by Hamilton and Willick, c1996), so there were a lot of people, both local birders and those from farther away, who were very interested in seeing this bird.

We went on a Saturday morning, accompanied by someone who had seen the bird only the day before, and we were confident of our success. Naturally, we couldn’t find the stupid bird! We circled the entire pond in the shadows of the bluff there, checked out every immature Black-crowned Night-Heron on the property, without any success. Finally, it turned out that the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was actually roosting among a large group of Black-crowned Night-Herons in the trees right where we started. The night-heron was both cooperative and uncooperative: it afforded us long looks at fairly minimal distance, but it was perched in such a dense tangle of branches that the view was almost always obscured. Eventually we got a few photos.

Burrowing Owl

Wintering Burrowing Owl

For an encore, we decided to search the ground squirrel burrows in the shadow of the mesa to see if any of the Burrowing Owls from previous years had returned for another winter. Eventually we found one bird. The views weren’t great, and the bird was never completely out of its chosen burrow, but we did get fairly good looks at it. Later in the day, someone else found a second bird. But these guys are pretty tricky – if you don’t know how or where to look for them, they are quite easily overlooked. Burrowing Owls are pretty tough to come by in Orange County, victims of the widespread development that has gobbled up virtually all grassland habitat in the county. There is a small permanent breeding population of this species in an area closed to the public, and then there are scattered wintering birds that pop up in remnant patches of habitat as winter residents, like the Bolsa Chica birds. Hopefully, these two will stick around and be found on the upcoming Coastal Christmas Bird Count!

The pictures were taken by digiscoping with a Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope and a Nikon CoolPix P6000 (Night-Heron) or a Kowa TSN-883 with a Nikon CoolPix P300 (Burrowing Owl). The optics were mounted on a  Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 carbon fiber tripod with a MVH500AH pro fluid digiscoping head.

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