On July 1 a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-heron was found by Sandy Podulka at 
the Taughannock Falls State Park marina. It was only the 3rd eBird record for 
Tompkins County. The others were a young bird found injured along NYS-13 near 
the Ithaca airport, taken to rehab, and euthanized, and an adult which was 
photographed along Fall Creek in or near Freeville. The Taughannock bird was 
the first Tompkins Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that was easy to chase, and it 
(or a bird very like it!) was seen there on 3 consecutive days. Many people saw 
it and submitted eBird reports, and many of those included photos. 

Yesterday, July 18, a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was found by Tristan 
Herwood in Cass Park about 7 miles away from the Taughannock find. It was seen 
by at least 11 birders before it was lost about an hour and a half after the 
rare bird alert. Some people conjectured that, given the rarity of the species, 
it was probably the same bird. However I believe that most of the Cass 
observers did not see both birds. Many Cass observers specifically rushed there 
because they missed the Taughannock bird. I’m only certain that Ann Mitchell, 
Tristan Herwood, and I all saw the species both places. There are far fewer 
photos of the Cass bird. I think my photos of the bird at Cass (most of which 
are in my eBird report) show the most detail. I have not seen any of Tristan’s 
Cass photos. Although I know he sent a photo to the text rare bird alert, I 
have the old version of the app which does not get the photos, and so far his 
eBird report has no photos. So I am comparing my Cass photos with everyone’s 
eBird Taughannock photos, as well as my own observations of behavior. 

It looks to me like these are 2 different birds, although I am willing to be 
convinced otherwise from someone who knows more about changes in juvenile 
Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, particularly the color of the bill & facial skin. 
Vicens Vila, in his eBird report seems to have reached a similar opinion based 
more on plumage. I’m not sure if he saw the Cass photos in my eBird report 
before writing that. Here are some differences I noted:

Behavior: although both birds spent a lot of time treed when birders were 
nearby, the Cass Park bird seemed particularly nervous. After birders moved 
away from the Taughannock bird on the evening of July 1, it came down and began 
feeding. At Cass, when I realized that the 4 of us remaining were not focused 
entirely on the Night-Heron, I suggested we move farther away, and we moved 
another 20’ or so back. After that, Tom Schulenberg arrived approaching from 
the far side, and I circled around enough to make sure he saw the bird, after 
which I returned to the others. I suspect the bird was watching us carefully, 
because when none of the 5 of us was looking, it moved, but rather than coming 
down to the “floodles” (great word I just learned from Daniel Toronto & Leah 
Dodd), it either moved farther into the foliage or it flew away entirely. It 
hadn’t found any food while I had seen it in the water, so maybe the area was 
simply less attractive than the crayfish bonanza at the Taughannock Falls SP 
marina. When the Cass bird had been on the ground or in the floodles shortly 
after my initial arrival, it seemed more nervous than the Taughannock bird, 
even flinching at the movement of a nearby Mallard. Okay, the Mallards at 
Taughannock were sleeping, and the Taughannock bird moved away from birders 
when several of us moved rather suddenly and in unison for better photography 
views as it fed, but still the Cass bird seemed more nervous to me regarding us 
looking at it. 

Plumage: Vicens mentioned that the Cass bird seemed less worn than the 
Taughannock bird. I haven’t looked at that aspect, nor do I feel particularly 
qualified to do so. What I did notice is that the Cass bird had something going 
on in the crown feathers that was different or more extensive than on the 
Taughannock bird. The Taughannock bird seemed generally very smooth, full, and 
even in the plumage on the crown, with only a couple of very short single 
strands of possible down sticking up from the center of the rear of the crown. 
The Cass bird had 2 or 3 entire feathers standing up and out of place in the 
center of the rear of the crown. In an out of focus photo which was not among 
my best allotted 10 to submit (but which I’m happy to share), there appears to 
be a hole in the plumage in the middle of the rear of the crown of the Cass 
bird. That hole and disarray could have been some sort of injury I suppose, 
which could even account for a bird being more nervous. But to me, the plumage 
on the head looked like 2 different birds. 

Bill color: the Taughannock bird in photos on July 1 & 2 has a mostly black 
bill with only a little gray toward the base and some bright yellow on the 
underside of the lower bill. The Cass bird is black on the distal 3/5 but 
distinctly gray on the proximal 2/5. I did not see any yellow on its bill. Some 
photographs from 3 July at Taughannock show a gray area on the bill which is 
similar to the Cass bird. Is the color of the bill apt to change on this time 
scale? Most of the photos look like separate birds at Taughannock & Cass by 
their bills. 

Facial skin: The Taughannock bird showed consistently more orange skin around 
the eye, the lores, and along the base of the bill, possibly including a bit of 
gape “lip” at the corner. The Cass bird looked faintly yellowish gray at its 
most colorful on the facial skin. Would the skin be expected to lose color over 
a couple weeks in a juvenile? If not, then this again points to 2 birds. 

So anyway I think there have been 2 individual Yellow-crowned Night-herons in 
Tompkins County, but if someone else has a look at these or additional photos 
and has another opinion, or can explain why some or all of these observations 
can be explained by the passage of a couple of weeks I’m open to hear it. 

- Dave Nutter

Cayugabirds-L List Info:

1) http://www.mail-archive.com/cayugabirds-l@cornell.edu/maillist.html
2) http://www.surfbirds.com/birdingmail/Group/Cayugabirds
3) http://birdingonthe.net/mailinglists/CAYU.html

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