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Spooky Night Herons Haunt the VI Wetlands

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are reclusive residents in VI wetlands. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Halloween makes us think about scary creatures jumping out from the dark. Yellow-crowned Night Herons do sometimes look spooky, but they are not really threatening – unless you are a land crab they might want to catch for dinner.

When it starts to get dark, these night herons will wait around by land crab holes in marshy areas and grab the crabs as they come out. Sometimes my husband and I see one of the night herons out chasing crabs along the road when we are driving back from dinner in town. Most of the time, though, they stay hidden in the mangroves.

Sure they can give you a fright when they suddenly fly up in front of you. But maybe you shouldn’t be creeping around in their territory, startling them.

A night heron suddenly flushed up in front of me, looking like a ghost. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

They do sometimes venture out of the wetlands and into our yard. One night the motion-activated light outside was triggered, and when I peeked out there was a juvenile night heron standing on top of our outdoor fireplace chimney. Looking pretty spooky.

I knew it was a juvenile because it had striped feathers rather than the gray/blue adult plumage — maybe a rowdy teenager. It certainly didn’t seem alarmed about being caught in the spotlight.

A young night heron surveyed the pond one night from on top of our chimney. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

In the daytime, the night herons mostly rest, hidden in the trees. The ones I see are usually by themselves, not hanging out in flocks.

Then one day there was this gray figure lurking in the bushes along the edge of the pond, posing like a creepy flasher.

This Yellow-Crowned Night Heron gave me an uncomfortable feeling. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

I was freaked out, even after I realized it was just a bird. Later I learned that this is not actually a mating-related display. It seems to be a way for the birds to get rid of annoying insects on their feathers by heating them up in the sunlight until the bugs get uncomfortable and decide to move off.

Even freakier, another time there was a night heron sitting in a wings-extended flasher pose in the sun, and it was also breathing rapidly through its mouth and vibrating its throat. Yikes. What was that about?

This night heron seemed to be delivering a throaty, agitated speech. (Photo Gail Karlsson)

Rapid breathing and throat vibrating turn out to be a way for birds to cool down. Maybe this one got too hot while toasting its bugs in the sun. Whatever the reason, this was certainly an oddly attention-grabbing performance for an otherwise pretty secretive bird.

They probably think I’m pretty weird too. Sneaking around and taking pictures of them. I think they are not really scared of me at this point, though, and maybe even enjoy my gawking.

— Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer. She is the author of two books about the Virgin Islands – The Wild Life in an Island House, and the guidebook Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John. She has also recently published A Birds’ Guide to The Battery and New York Harbor. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson and gvkarlsson.blogspot.com.

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