Friday, March 8, 2019

Yellow-crowned Night-herons: Setting the records straight

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) is generally thought of as a southern species that sometimes wanders north -- particularly during the post-breeding period but occasionally as a nesting species. The first Michigan breeding record was a pair that nested along the Rouge River at the UM-Dearborn campus in 1971. This record is credited to William Fisher. Here are his original notes from his submission to the Bird Survey of the Detroit Region:

Later that year, he published a short note in Michigan Audubon's Jack-Pine Warbler (Fisher 1971) describing the successful nesting:

Curiously, there is never another mention that this sighting involved at least one or maybe two additional birds. He says they followed one of three herons into the woods, where it ultimately flushed a mate from the nest. Two herons initially flew off. One may have ended up being the mate that was flushed from the nest, but it doesn't sound that way. Presumably, the two initial birds that flew off were also night-herons, which is quite intriguing. There is no clue about this in his original notes.

In any event, Fisher's claim that this was the first sighting of this species in the county (Wayne) was incorrect. A pair (the pair?) of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons was first observed in the same location by Gerald Kleis several weeks earlier, on 6 May 1971. His notes are below:

Kleis is acknowledged for this find in the Michigan Bird Survey for Spring 1971, published in the Jack-Pine Warbler (49:99): "Two were seen near Rouge River, Wayne Co., on 3,4 May by Kleis; the pair was found in the same area on 30 May by Fisher, with a nest." This is the only time Gerald Kleis has been given credit for his discovery, although all the dates given are wrong. A letter included with his survey forms reveals that Kleis was off to Africa for anthropological research. He was gone at least a few years and thus not around to correct the record.

Those were the first in a string of errors connected with these sightings. A note published in the Jack-Pine Warbler (Greenhouse and Kleiman 1972, below) stated that Fisher took the authors to the Dearborn nest on June 4, 1971 and that a month later they (the authors) found another nest in Monroe County. However, this June 4 date crept into Wolinski's (1988) review of the status of this species in the state, providing that date for the Dearborn nest discovery.

Finally, Reinoehl's (1994) account gives this incorrect chronology: "First nestings were confirmed in Wayne and Monroe counties in 1971 and 1972, respectively."

Whew. I am here to clarify and correct the facts that have been published about the early history of this species in Michigan:
  • Gerald Kleis found a pair of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons along the Rouge River on the UM-Dearborn campus on 6 May 1971 (not 3 and/or 4 May). He did not locate a nest.
  • William Fisher and his wife found likely the same pair at the same location at a nest on 29 May 1971 (not 30 May or 4 June).
  • Fisher showed the nest to Jeff Greenhouse and Joe Kleiman on 4 June 1971. Later, on 10 July 1971 (not 1972), they found a nest in Monroe County.
The Dearborn nest site was apparently not used in subsequent years, although a Westland location (also in Wayne County) persisted from 1975-1982, and there were further sightings in Monroe County (Carpenter et al. 1994).

Tom Olkowski had the last dated Dearborn sighting of that era on campus on 30 April 1980, although there were some reports of sightings in 1984.

It took another 30+ years before another Yellow-crowned Night-Heron was seen in Dearborn. Someone reported one on campus along the shore of Fairlane Lake to Rick Simek on 17 June 2017. A number of us were able to see this lovely bird that day, after which it was not seen again.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at UM-Dearborn 17 Jun 2017.
Photo by Mike O'Leary, used with permission.

As I watched this bird I was thinking about the 1971 pair, and I'm glad to have the chance now to tell that convoluted story.

Literature and further reading:

Carpenter, T. C. 1991. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (Nyctanassa violacea). Pp. 533-534 in The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Michigan. R. Brewer, et al., eds. Michigan State University Press, E. Lansing.

Carpenter, T. W., A. L. Carpenter, and J. A. Fowler, Jr. 1994. Sightings and nesting observations of Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax violaceus) in Wayne and Monroe Counties, 1975-1988. Mich. Birds and Nat. Hist. 1(4):2-6

Fisher, W. 1971. Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests in Michigan. Jack-Pine Warbler 49:86.

Greenhouse, J. A., and J. P. Kleiman. 1972. Second nesting of Yellow-crowned Night Heron in Michigan. Jack-Pine Warbler 50:29.

Reinoehl, J. 1994. Yellow-crowned Night-heron. Pp. 19-20 in The Birds of Michigan. J. Granlund et al., eds. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Wolinski, R. A. 1988. Status of the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Michigan. Jack-Pine Warbler 66:117-119.

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