Restoring landscapes across the Mount Alexander Region

Bird of the month: Nankeen Night-Heron

Posted on 21 August, 2023 by Ivan

Welcome to Bird of the Month, a partnership between Connecting Country and BirdLife Castlemaine District. Each month we’re taking a close look at one special local bird species. We’re excited to join forces to deliver you a different bird each month, seasonally adjusted, and welcome suggestions from the community. We are blessed to have the brilliant Jane Rusden and Damian Kelly from BirdLife Castlemaine District writing about our next bird of the month, accompanied by Damian’s stunning photos.

Nankeen Night-Heron (Nycticorax caledonicus)

After a frustrating afternoon trying and unfortunately failing to photograph Brown Falcons and Nankeen Kestrels on the Moolort Plains, Ash Vigus and I nearly gave up and went home. But at the last minute, just as we were losing light with encroaching dusk, we were thrilled to stumble on an immature Nankeen Night-Heron. Incredibly cryptic, they merge into the background and almost disappear, except in this case because it did a big spray of poop from its tree branch perch, which was very obvious when it hit the water below.

Immature Nankeen Night-Heron at Carin Curran Reservoir. Their plumage is quite different to the adult birds. Photo by Jane Rusden

A large poop has to come from a large bird, at 65cm in length and a wingspan of up to 1 metre, Nankeen Night-Herons are exactly that. Despite their size and the less camouflaged plumage of the adult birds, they remain masters of disguise, melting into foliage and becoming unnoticeable. They love roosting in dense vegetation and mostly forage at night to compound the difficulty of spotting them. When they vocalise, their loud croak or squawk is generally heard at night too. I always find it curious that the Herons, generally incredibly elegant birds, have the most hideous calls. However, they are calling to each other, not for the sake of our ears.

Herons are generally associated with water, the Nankeen Night-Heron is no exception, living, foraging and breeding along the margins of water. They inhabit the edges of lakes, rivers and coastal water bodies, good spots to hide and stealthy hunt for insects, crustaceans, frogs and fish. Their varied diet may also include house mice that wander too close to the Nankeen Night-Herons lethal stabbing bill, or even human refuse. You might be lucky to see one in the early morning, feeding along the edge of shallow water in local places like the Loddon River, Cairn Curran and the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens, they can also be found at Melbourne Botanical Gardens and Lake Wendouree in Ballarat.

Nankeen Night-Heron adult. Photo by Damian Kelly

Everything about the Nankeen Night-Heron is connected to water, including breeding, which can happen at any time of the year, always in response to rainfall. They congregate all over Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in suitable habitats, to breed in large colonies, often alongside other species of water birds such as Ibises, Cormorants, other egrets and my favorite, Spoonbills. Their stick nests are loosely made and situated over water. In days gone by, before widespread habitat degradation like the draining of swamps, there have been recordings of up to 3000 birds spread over 21 hectares, all breeding. Nankeen Night-Herons will lay 2-3 eggs, which are incubated by both parents, both parents also feed the young hatchings.

The beautiful Nankeen Night-Heron, photo by Damian Kelly

Good luck looking for this secretive species, you’ll need plenty of patience and very sharp eyes to find them, move slowly and try not to startle the wary but beautiful Nankeen Night-Heron.

You can listen to the Nankeen Night-Heron call by using the audio button here.

Jane Rusden
Damian Kelly

2 responses to “Bird of the month: Nankeen Night-Heron”

  1. Janine says:

    I have nankeen night herons nesting in trees opposite my balcony. They fly in in the morning and out at dusk. So interesting to watch.

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