It’s a chilly, bright January day; I’m standing below the Logan-Martin Dam with my wife Eva, and we’re enjoying the great looks we’re getting at the eagles, the Osprey, the gulls, the herons…what a great place!
Among the birds present here are Black-crowned night-herons – adult Black-crowned night-herons, sub-adult Black-crowned night-herons, first-year Black-crowned night-herons…lots and lots of Black-crowned night-herons. And then it struck me: The rocks and rip-rap below the Logan-Martin Dam constitute the best and most reliable place in Alabama to see Black-crowned Night-Herons. It is unusual to be able to make such a statement as this with confidence and conviction, but I believe it to be true: This is Black-crowned Night-heron central for Alabama.
And that is an unusual situation, because Black-crowned night-herons are one of Alabama’s least common wading birds. Although they are known to nest in the state, and despite the fact that they are present throughout the year, BCNH’s are highly uncommon in the state. Even for a night-heron, they are relatively rare: they are probably outnumbered by their close relative, the Yellow-crowned night-heron, by a ratio that must be close to 50:1.
Not only are these birds present in only small numbers in the state, their habits make it hard on us: they are largely nocturnal, and they typically spend much of their free time ensconced in deep camouflage amongst cattails and marsh grasses, where they can be amazingly difficult to spot. Sure, they occur in other places in the state – I could suggest the swamp on the south side of the road across the Hwy 69 bridge in Guntersville, or the Dauphin Island Airport marsh (at night), or East Lake Park in Birmingham, or Swan Creek Management Area near Decatur…but the numbers are low, visibility is tough, the birds are most active in the dead of night, or they may or may not be present. So Logan-Martin Dam is the place. Here the birds are present – in the open — in good numbers all day long, every day of the year.
Black-crowned night-herons are relatively easy to identify. They are about 2’ tall. Adults sport a pointed black bill, a black cap, nape, and back, with powder-grey neck and upper breast, slate grey wings and tail, and white underparts. Note the bright red eye. First-year birds are grey-brown with white teardrop-shaped spots over the entire body. The young birds’ bills are yellow to horn-colored. Subadult birds are intermediate, with the marking of the adult birds and the greyish-brown coloration of the younger birds. All BCNH’s have yellow legs. The call (a nasal “squok”) gives the birds their nickname – Squok. Young birds can be difficult to distinguish from young Yellow-crowned night-herons. There are a few features that should help: 1) BCNH’s have a thinner bill, with a slight downward curve. 2) BCNH’s have shorter legs above the knee. And 3) In flight, only the toes of a BCNH extend beyond the tail. A YCNH has the entire foot and a tiny bit of leg trailing beyond the tail. All this and one more thing – baby BCNH’s are more grey than YCNH’s , which are really warm brown.
Got some time to look for birds in Central Alabama this month? Try Logan-Martin Dam. From I-20 at Pell City in St Clair County, take exit 158 and follow US 231 south for 10 miles. Take a left turn onto Hwy 54 (where there is a sign for the dam) and follow 4.5 miles until you see Kelly Creek Rd. Turn right onto Kelly Creek Rd, which dead-ends at a public parking area below the dam. Your GPS headings are: N 33.426069 W -86.33884.
Check out the jetties and rip-rap for night-herons.