As I was walking North Beach in Fort Desoto Park I noticed this juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron stalking quietly near the dunes.
The heron slowly approached a tree stump on the beach and made a strike at it’s prey.
The young heron had captured a large Ghost Crab. Moments later the crab got away and scurried into the thick sea oats a few feet away. The bird ran over and climbed into the grass to find it. It seemed like a clean get-away for the crab.
The sea oats were so thick that the bird appeared to be stuck at one point. It’s wings were sometimes spread as it teetered from side to side looking for the crab.
Amazingly, the heron re-captured the crab in the thick grass.
After about five minutes the heron emerged back onto the beach with its prey, along with a mouthful of sea oats leaves.
The heron seemed to be having some difficulty dealing with the crab and acted as though it was not sure how to proceed.
At one point, the heron dropped the crab and took a few steps away from it. The crab tried to run away, but was missing several legs by this time and was unable to go far. I thought the bird had given up and decided the crab was more than it could manage.
The bird started acting strangely, then coughed up a fairly large pellet consisting of partially digested Fiddler Crabs. The pellet was nearly four inches long and an inch and a half wide. I’m wondering if the bird coughed up the pellet prematurely, just to make room for the Ghost Crab, since it appeared that a bit more digesting was in order.
I broke the moist pellet apart to find that the bird had been feeding on Fiddler Crabs. Some of them looked like they still had not been digested completely.
After coughing up the pellet, the young heron went back to work on the crab. It took several minutes, but it finally managed to swallow the crab. Then it picked up the various broken legs off the sand and swallowed those too. Waste not, want not.
After the heron finished swallowing the crab, I slowly approached because I wanted to see what it had coughed up. The bird let me approach to within ten feet before it started to walk away. It finally took a position about 25 feet away and watched me curiously as I examined the pellet it left behind, which would become food, ironically, for Ghost Crabs.
Here is a close up of the head and bill of the juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. Notice the shape of the bill. The top mandible is straight, but the bottom mandible curves up towards the top. This is a difference between the Yellow-Crowned Night Heron and the Black-Crowned Night Heron (below for comparison), which has moth mandibles curving toward the tip of the bill.
Here is a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron for comparison. Note the different bill shape.
This is a Ghost Crab. They live in burrows on the beach. They are called Ghost Crabs because they are often seen at dusk scurrying around on the sand, visible as a white blur, like a Ghost. Once they stay still, they are almost invisible.
These Fiddler Crabs are a favorite food item of night herons.