A ‘Wok’ on the Wild Side

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

My grandmother always called them ‘Woks’. "There goes a ‘Wok’," she would say, and I learned to play back the tape in my mind and think of the harsh sound we had just heard. We lived at 3 Chestnut Street then and we’d hear them as it was getting dark in the evening.

It was many years before I was able to actually associate the bird with that sound. My mother had a black and white drawing, done by Ruth Haviland Sutton, showing some different-looking, black and white birds, standing in the cattails near a wooden bridge with white railings. As I entered my early teens, I found these were Black-crowned Night-Herons and their call was one of the first I learned.

Riding my bike out Madaket Road, I’d find them posed like sentinels along the edge of the rushes on Long Pond, near the First Bridge. These birds are part of the heron family, but night-herons are different than the typical heron. As the name indicates, they favor darkness. Actually ‘crepuscular’ is the word that describes their habits, meaning a creature that is most active at dusk. During the day, they often are seen resting at the edge of the marsh.

Linnaeus, himself, gave them their Latin name, Nycticorax nycticorax, which translates to ‘night crow’. It’s possible that the ‘wok’ call reminded him of a crow going over. It also gives us a clue to the worldwide distribution of this species. Carl Linnaeus, who developed the scientific naming system for all life forms back in the 1700’s, lived in Europe. So,Black-crowned Night-Herons are not just found here. They are among the most widespread of birds, being found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica.

Nantucket’s earliest records for this bird go back to William Brewster’s notes from 1874 where he refers to 100 pairs nesting near the north head of Long Pond. Edith Andrews found only 25 to 30 pairs when researching for her 1948 book, and that number seems to have persisted today. There is also a rookery in the Quaise area.

However this is nothing compared with the numbers of night-herons found in the Sandy Neck nesting area over on the Cape, which has been estimated at 2,000 pairs. This rookery has been studied for over 100 years, and the birds have persisted, even though they were ‘shot out’ several times by local ‘sportsmen’. Unfortunately, we have the words of John James Audubon himself, who pointed out that, "The young are quite as good for eating as those of the common pigeon, being tender, juicy, and fat, with very little of the fishy taste of many birds which, like them, feed on fishes and reptiles." I must confess, I would never have thought this to be a game bird until I started researching this article!

In flight, these birds do not make you think of herons. Actually we’ve had them reported as owls. Nantucket birders scurried to the Stop & Shop parking lot late one fall, looking for the flock of owls reported flying toward the cricks near sunset. In actuality, these turned out to be our Black-crowned Night-Herons. Their round-shouldered, rowing flight had made the observer think of an owl. In flight, they seem crow-sized. With binoculars, you see the rounded gray wings contrasting with the black back and top of head. They are white underneath. However, a young night-heron is a horse of a different color – streaked brown. As such, it can be easily confused with other brown birds of the swamp, a bittern for example. So, it is best to learn the young birds by the company they keep.

Andrews and Blackshaw’s "Birding Nantucket" shows this species to be common in the summer and rare throughout the winter. Looking at Christmas Bird Count data, we see an interesting cyclical pattern. Almost never seen before 1968, then we have a recurring five to seven year pattern with as many as 78 birds seen in 1975. More recently, winter numbers have been low, under ten individuals.

So, if you are in town at dusk, listen for the ‘Wok’ call overhead. Depending on tide, night-herons like to hunt the edges of Nantucket Harbor. They fly there from their daytime hiding places. A favorite spot is the rocky bed, only exposed at low tide, just south of Steamboat Wharf. If you can dodge the passing ferry activity, perhaps you will be rewarded with a ‘Wok’ on the wild side.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.