For beginning birders there is often identification confusion brought about by differences between juvenal and adult plumages of some species. A classic example is the White-crowned Sparrow, where novice birders can see wintering flocks containing birds with the striking black-and-white striped crowns of adults, accompanied by young birds with duller, brown and tan stripes on the crowns. Similarly, Black-crowned Night-Herons have juvenal plumages that may lead novices to think they are looking at two different species (see photos). The Black-crowned Night-Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) occurs on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. It breeds across the entire United States, in all but the driest habitats. Some populations migrate, or at least disperse short distances, but birds nesting in California are mostly sedentary. In those populations in the U.S. that migrate, many simply move farther south in the U.S., while others winter as far south as Mexico and Central America. In southern California, Black-crowned Night-Herons are known (or suspected) to nest at localities such as the Salton Sea, many sites along the coast, Lake Mathews, Lake Norconian, San Jacinto Wildlife Area, Mojave Narrows, and the Prado Basin. The species nests in colonies that can number as high as 500 pairs, but in southern California it is not unusual to find nesting sites that have only a few pairs. Nests are most often in trees, but can be in large shrubs or marsh vegetation. The majority of nests are at heights of 20 to 40 feet, but some can be only a few feet from the ground. Like most herons, the nests are platforms of sticks. Clutch sizes vary from 1 to 6 eggs per nest, with most studies showing averages of 3 to 4. Eggs have a smooth, matte finish, and are greenish-blue. Both sexes incubate the eggs, which hatch in about 23 days. Following hatching, the young leave the nest after about 30 days, but cannot fly. Rather, they move through vegetation on foot. At about six weeks of age they are able to fly, and then begin to accompany adults to feeding areas. Most food is aquatic, such as fish, crayfish, clams, mussels, squid, and aquatic insects, but they also take terrestrial prey such as snakes, lizards, small mammals, and birds. As their name implies, they feed from early evening hours to morning. Even during winter the Black-crowned Night-Heron exhibits colonial habits. It is common during Christmas Bird Counts in our area to find day-roosting birds in groups. In the area that I count for the Salton Sea North CBC there is an area surrounding ponds at a hunting club that routinely contains from 50 to 100 roosting Black-crowned Night-Herons.
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