Alison Wagner and I stopped at Dead Creek (Brilyea) late yesterday afternoon. We parked at the south end of the road and walked out to the east across the little bridge. We stopped there to look at a Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper, and realized that there was also a Bittern standing nearby on the mudflats (north of the bridge). We looked at it for a bit, and commented to each other that the bill and head didn't look right. We stared a little more and thought -- maybe it's a juvenile Night Heron. A quick look in the book confirmed that that was exactly what it was. We had been fooled by the size, general shape, coloration, and the fact that the bird was standing quite erect -- not the familiar head on shoulders night heron posture.
Over the next 15 minutes, we got to see not just the one youngster, but 4 of them! And they were immensely entertaining. One stood in the shallows and tried to hunt, but it was distracted by every movement in the water and kept jerking its head left, right, up, down (not a proven hunting approach for most herons!). It finally took a stab at something and came up with a stick. Then, we were amused by another one that was trying to make a landing while flying down wind in a stiff breeze. It kept folding its wings and going into a completely uncontrolled tumbling crash dive. It looked like it had been shot, or hit by a raptor. At first, we thought something was seriously wrong with the bird, but when it finally banked around into the wind and made a perfect landing, we figured it out and got a good laugh at his / her expense.
I was out there last Monday, and ticked-off American Bittern on my observation list when a bird of right size and coloration flew over. I wonder in retrospect if I had seen one of these guys, and just didn't pay attention to the differences. Ali did a little e-studying and found that clutches can be up to 8 in size -- so there may be more than the 4 we saw.
If you go to Brilyea, keep an eye out for these youngsters.
PS -- While standing on that little bridge, I scanned the trees to the north and found a juvenile raptor sitting on a branch at about mid-tree level. It was difficult to see clearly, even with a small scope (distance and fading light), but Ali and I believe it to have been a young Harrier (right head shape, coloration and dark eye, etc.). We also saw many Song Sparrow fledglings, and over 20 young Tree Swallows sitting in one tree while there. Finally, a juvenile Bald Eagle capped the afternoon with a great fly-over. Dead Creek is quite the nursery right now!