THE GREAT BLUE HERON

by Nancy Sefton, Winter 2019

Photo by Philip Hutcherson
Photo by Philip Hutcherson

THE GREAT BLUE HERON

by Nancy Sefton, Winter 2019

 

As I floated in my kayak, I spotted a great blue heron perched on a mass of partially submerged roots. Suddenly it stabbed the water and came up with a small flounder, a meal quickly swallowed by a sharp-eyed bird.   The next time I encountered a feeding heron, it was standing in shallow waters, plucking a wiggly gunnel from the gentle surf.    

Video by Nancy Sefton
Photo by Philip Hutcherson

This heron species seems to be everywhere near water, fresh or salt, and it’s not hard to spot.  If you stroll the Salish shoreline, look for this tall, gangly grey-blue bird with a scissor-like beak. You may even glimpse one with its long stick legs supporting it on a floating bed of kelp, waiting for small fish to swim by and be captured. 

Despite this heron’s great height, adults weigh in at only 5 to 6 lbs., thanks to hollow bones (a trait other birds share).

Photo by John F. Williams

eating

Thanks to an abundance of photo receptors in the eyes that provide superior night vision, herons can hunt by day or night. That efficient “freeze and wait” technique that I observed is only one of several food-gathering skills.  Herons may employ the “walk quickly” method (moving fast to flush the prey), or even “patting and flying,” which involves brushing the water’s surface with its wings and dipping its beak, catching the food while in flight.  While in flight, folding those massive wings to make a sudden dive into the water also yields a welcome meal. Even snatching flying insects right from the air isn’t beyond this amazing bird’s abilities. 

Of course, all these techniques are successful with the help of binocular vision, plus a long S-shaped neck for a stronger strike.  Other food items may include frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, rodents, gophers and even small water birds.

Painting by Nancy Sefton
Photo by Philip Hutcherson
Painting by Nancy Sefton

breeding

Great blue herons breed in colonies, often congregating in forested wetlands or on islands with trees.  The great blue herons’ mating displays include neck stretching upward and pointing beaks skyward.  Although they do not mate for life, once their beautiful courtship ritual has finished, the male and female will have formed the strong bond needed to raise their offspring together.

Photo by John F. Williams

Great blues choose nesting sites according to overall conditions and the proximity of food.  They may re-use the previous year’s sites, and thus their rookeries get larger with time.  For example, one protected forest rookery in New England contains over 500 nests and has been active since the 1940s!

Here in the Pacific Northwest, these birds nest in trees well above the ground or waterline, and the female fashions the nest with materials gathered by the male.  She lays from two to seven pale blue eggs that are incubated by both sexes in turn.  The young are fed by regurgitation, and are capable of flight in about 60 days.  In the Salish Sea, these birds nest only once per year.

If you look closely, you can see one heron on the nest, and another to the left.
Photo by John F. Williams
Painting by Karen Hackenberg

Because feeding habitat is crucial, great blue heron nests are built in the crowns of live or dead trees, usually near lakes and wetlands.  An entire rookery may be abandoned if the birds are repeatedly disturbed by human intrusion; this results in total reproductive failure.  But if encroaching humans are not visible to the birds, especially after a leaf canopy has developed, the impact may be reduced.  Heron experts have suggested buffer zones of at least 1,000 feet around heron rookeries.

Photo by John F. Williams

Fortunately, when it comes to interactions with humans, this species is protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  While herons and their nesting habits have little (if any) impact on the natural areas they inhabit, human populations can sometimes encroach on their territories. If you come upon a great blue, stay very still and you may catch a glimpse of its extraordinary skills at finding a meal!

Nancy Sefton is an artist, writer, videographer, and photographer who specializes in nature subjects. A former diver, she has contributed frequently to national magazines and newspapers, publishing over 300 articles about marine life. Nancy now lives in Poulsbo and writes for Sound Publishing newspapers.

imagery by

Nancy Sefton, see bio above.

Philip Hutcherson, onmurdencove.com

Karen Hackenberg, karenhackenberg.com

John F. Williams, salishmagazine.org

 

Table of Contents, Issue #6, Winter 2019

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