Sunday 16 June 2024

The Yellow crowned Night Heron in Ireland 14th June 2024

It was while holidaying on The Isle of Arran a few weeks ago that news broke  on the 26th of May of the rather sensational discovery of a Yellow crowned Night Heron, normally to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, frequenting a river running through the small village of Belcarra that is situated in County Mayo in the west of Ireland.

This would be the first time this species of heron had been found in Britain and Ireland so obviously there would be a huge amount of interest from birders in both countries. Indeed no less than twenty British birders went to see it the very next day after its discovery and the bird has since become a minor celebrity in Ireland, not just amongst the local birding fraternity but featuring in both the Irish Times and Irish Sun.  The village of Belcarra, consisting of just two hundred souls has, in a very Irish way taken the heron to its heart and notices with its picture are attached to fences by the river exhorting visitors to not disturb it too much or approach it too closely and maybe make a donation to the Belcarra Riverside Walk

Until this discovery there had only been thirteen records of a Yellow crowned Night Heron in the Western Palearctic

9 on the Azores 
1 at Terceira July 2010 was the first record for Europe and the Western Palearctic. 
Another 8 have occurred on the Azores in subsequent years.

1 at Funchal, Madeira February/March 2011.

1 at Faro, Portugal June 2020.

1 at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt January 2021.

1 found dead at Ouddorp,The Netherlands May 2021. 
This record was not accepted due to the circumstances in which it was found.

This latest individual in Ireland was frequenting a short wooded stretch  of the River Manulla that flows through the pleasant rural surrounds of Belcarra and had been first photographed from a narrow metal bridge that crossed the river there.

I was on Arran until the 9th of June so there was little I could do even if I wanted to go and see it.I do not really twitch birds in Ireland but various images subsequently appearing showed what an attractive and confiding bird it was. The only one I had seen before was on the Caribbean coast of Ecuador in October 2014 and that was only a brief view. My mind was made up to go to Ireland.

I spoke to Mark my twitching pal and we discussed various plans to go and see the heron when I returned from Arran. Our main concern was cost and the time it would take to get to Ireland and back. The choice was between an overnight ferry from Holyhead and then drive for 3.5 hours from Dublin to Belcarra  or fly from Leeds/Bradford airport, near Mark's home, to Dublin and then rent a car to get us to the bird.

After a bit of indecision we opted to take a late night Ryanair flight and hire a car from Hertz at Dublin airport as this was both quicker and to our surprise cheaper than going by the ferry.

I arrived at Mark's house on Tuesday evening which left us with most of Wednesday for some local birding which included a singing Marsh Warbler at nearby RSPB Saltholme. On Wednesday night we were due to fly out at an hour before midnight, taking one small bag containing both our cameras and with binoculars strung around our necks thus avoiding Ryanair's attempts to extract more money for all those annoying extras that lurk for the unwary on their website.

We would drive overnight to the bird, spend some of the day at Belcarra and then possibly look for the Least Tern at Portrane Point near Dublin before returning to the airport on Thursday evening to catch another late flight back to Britain. 

Already tired and feeling the effects of taking antibiotics for an infected toe I was not at my best as I sat in a gloomy departure lounge awaiting our flight which inevitably was delayed. This posed further anxiety as Hertz in Dublin, where we were due to collect our car, closed at 1am. Our flight was due in at fifteen minutes after midnight. Any further delay would mean we would have to wait for Hertz to re-open at 5am.

I survived the Ryanair cattle herding departure experience and slumped back in my seat for the forty five minute flight.With no baggage to collect we made it to the Hertz desk with fifteen minutes to spare and were given a Volkswagen Golf.

Mark set about the three and a half hour drive to Belcarra. It was only as we cleared the city limits of Dublin and familiarised ourselves with the car's instrument panel that we realised we had been given a car whose entire instrument display was in German.There was little we could do but guess at the various displays and fortunately no major misinterpretation caused us a problem.

The main roads in Ireland compared to our night and day congested motorways are a pleasure to drive on, even in Dublin a busy capital city, and a reminder of how our motorways used to be in former times.

Both of us were dog tired as Mark drove us through the night encountering hardly any other vehicle  apart from the occasional lorry heading north. Mark did the driving while I handled the Satnav, gave driving updates and kept Mark awake.

It was a long, rather boring and somewhat surreal drive across Ireland's heartland and seemed to go on forever along deserted, dead straight roads. It is ever thus with middle of the night twitching in strange surroundings.

As we approached our destination the sky began to lighten and eventually signs for Belcarra appeared and we turned off the main road onto much smaller roads, more typical of rural Ireland,that twisted their way through various small settlements and then there was a sign announcing we were in Belcarra.

It was 4am.

We had made it after what seemed an age since we left Britain but was only hours

Belcarra village was fast asleep.Well it would be at such an early hour. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, no welcoming light shone. Following the directions on Birdguides we found ourselves in a cul de sac with a pleasant little picnic spot by the river but most definitely not the right location.

Not what we needed after all that had gone before.

From previous research we knew the heron was often seen from the small metal bridge that crossed the river but there was no sign of any bridge.

The bridge must be somewhere nearby Mark.

I will have a look at some previous posts from Birdguides about the heron and check what they say 

Finding an earlier post it mentioned a Community Centre and a footpath that led to a Riverside Walk behind it.

There was no obvious sign of a Community Centre. It was still half light and we had no sleep for almost twenty four hours.You can imagine our feelings.

We drove out of the cul de sac and back along the road we had just driven down.Another road led off in the direction of the river.

Let's park here Mark and walk down to the river and see what that brings.

We duly walked to the river and there, across an open piece of grass to our left was the metal bridge we sought.

Once on the bridge we scanned the small river in both directions, its banks lined with trees and bushes thick with leaves.It looked ideal for a night heron which likes nothing better than to roost deep within the cover of a leafy tree.

Sadly there was no sign of the heron along the river or in the trees in either direction.Still comparatively dark, the overgrown banks could be hiding anything. 
I confess to feeling distinctly downbeat at this particular moment but with the knowledge the heron had been seen every day apart from yesterday felt it must be around somewhere near. But where? 

It was not yet time to concede defeat.

It's obviously not here Mark. Where's the Community Centre?
No idea.

I scanned across a play area and an ornamental garden, more in hope than expectation.On the far side and facing us was an obvious building with the words Community Centre across its face.

We walked over to it.

I recalled the instructions from the post on Birdguides to walk behind it and down to the Riverside Walk by the river. 

Apparently this was another favourite hangout of the heron.

We walked down a sloping path to the Riverside.Walk

I can recall Mark saying.almost casually There it is

And me saying Where?

He pointed and there was the heron, stood close in to the near bank about twenty metres from us. At first all I could see was the top of its head - revealing a broad cream band along its crown but as it moved away from the bank the rest of its head came into view showing a striking facial pattern of black with a large white cheek patch and several long white plumes growing from the rear of its crown. Eyes the colour of vintage port regarded the water in which it stood. The rest of its body was bluish grey, the wings overlaid with long, pointed, dark centred grey feathers creating an attractive stripey appearance. Its bill was long and black and its legs corn yellow. The whole bird was pleasingly compact at rest, stocky even with a heron's typical hunchbacked look when its large head was retracted but when its neck was extended the heron appeared much slimmer.

It was searching the side of the shallow river for prey. At first we were circumspect and conversed in whispers hardly daring to move for fear of flushing the bird. The heron had noticed us and craned  its neck out to look at us obviously alert to potential danger.

My heart sank.Please do not fly away. For a minute or more it was a standoff but finally the heron went back to searching the river and even began to walk towards us. It became all too obvious the heron was totally unworried about us however close we stood to it.We in turn relaxed. 

It caught a crayfish, crustaceans being a principal part of a Yellow crowned Night Heron's diet and with some difficulty it swallowed the hard shelled beast.

Once the crayfish was consumed it flew to the opposite bank of the river and after a spell standing doing nothing resumed its hunt for crayfish. 

We were joined by another couple of birders who unbelievably I knew from my time in Sussex over twenty five years ago when I used to go seawatching at Seaford. They were touring Ireland for a month and told me they had searched the river here for all of yesterday in constant rain but failed to find the heron. Naturally they were as delighted as us to see it.

It caught another crayfish and then to our delight strode onto a large rock midstream and posed beautifully. It was as if it was saying, Will this pose do? Shall I show you my other side? It caught yet another crayfish and then settled on one leg on its rock for a period of digestion and contemplation, seemingly without a care in the world. I too felt pretty much the same watching it
.My tiredness, although approaching exhaustion, was all but forgotten as adrenalin and a feeling of fulfilment enveloped me. I should be used to it by now but every time it is slightly different, this sense of well being at seeing a rare bird against all the odds.

Time had been forgotten but now checking my phone  I saw it was only six am and we had already got all the images we wanted of this very rare bird. It could not have performed any better. For a while it continued to stand on its rock and then flew down the river only to appear beyond the now infamous metal bridge, where it resumed stalking the riverside on the hunt for more crayfish.

Yellow crowned Night Herons are normally found exclusively in The Americas, inhabiting tropical and sub tropical regions ranging from southern Florida, the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama and the coast of eastern Texas. They are also found in Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean and northern South America.

They are happy to live near humans and in their normal range can be found in wooded neighbourhoods and even nesting on rooftops.From what I saw of Belcarra, the village seemed an ideal substitute home for the heron with its quiet river full of crayfish and surrounded by trees to roost in.

Inevitably questions have been raised about how it got to County Mayo, especially as it was so confiding. Could it be an escape and not a true vagrant? It is a matter of personal judgement and from my point of view it had been found on the west coast of Ireland which would surely be a natural landfall for a storm blown bird from America.This also seems to be the general concensus amongst my fellow birders.

We stood on the metal bridge and chatted to a friendly Irish birder,who told us he was the top lister in Kerry, sharing this triumphant moment and pleasurable experience in a small remote village in the west of Ireland. The sun shone through the clouds and it was still shy of 7am when we bade farewell to the heron  and its new home on the gently running River Manulla.