For keen birders in Portugal, the easing of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions has been celebrated with the extraordinary discovery of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron in the Algarve. The first ever record in Continental Europe of this American species was found by a casual birdwatcher early on the morning of Tuesday, 19th May in, of all places, the marina in the heart of Faro. He posted photographs of the bird taken with his mobile phone which left no doubt as to the identity of the bird and created panic among Portugal’s birding listers as they scrambled to see it.
I arrived at the marina before sunrise the following morning as the first travellers from farther afield were parking their cars. Several circuits of the marina failed to produce the heron but, after about an hour, it was located perched in its roost tree where in remained for all to enjoy at close range. Subsequently, the pattern of observations has largely been at the roost site during the day or around the perimeter of the marina wall late in the evening when the heron is seeking to catch its favoured meal of crab.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron, in adult plumage, is a striking bird with a boldly patterned black and white head decorated with a large orange eye and several flimsy white plumes which fall from the crown. The body is a variety of shades of grey. In contrast, immatures are a dowdy brown, the upperparts, particularly the wings, spotted white, the underparts more broadly streaked. It is mainly a coastal species, ranging from around New York in the north down to Florida and the Gulf Coast, throughout the Caribbean and south to south-eastern Brazil. The Faro bird is, thus, a long way from home. So how has it got here?
There are only a handful of previous records of the species in Europe, all from Atlantic islands. One arrived on Madeira in 2011 and the rest were in the Azores, the first of which was an immature in October 2009 which is thought to have stayed for over two years by which time it had attained adult plumage. There are several intriguing aspects to the Faro bird’s occurrence. Whilst the species is resident over most of its range, the northernmost breeding birds migrate south for the winter. Almost all of the Azores records have related to immature birds that have been discovered in autumn, presumably having been blown off-course during their annual autumn migration. A May arrival of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron is unique and the fact that it is an adult only adds to the excitement. Spring transatlantic vagrancy generally is considerably more unusual than autumn crossings so there is room for speculation. Whilst moving south from New England, could this heron have been caught up in one of the adverse weather systems that were such a feature of the autumn of 2019? Then, driven across the Atlantic Ocean by storm-force winds, it reached Faro where it has remained unnoticed until now. The species is largely nocturnal which would help explain how it could have been missed throughout the winter. Added to that, its choice of residence, a busy marina surrounded by city buildings, is not a site regularly watched by local birders and, of course, in recent months Covid-19 lockdown has meant nobody has been looking.
We shall probably never know the answer and, for now, it remains a welcome enigma, amply illustrating the marvels of the Natural World.
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