Herons are a big subject, and today we’ll start with the biggest heron of all – the Great Blue Heron. Largest of the North American herons, and seemingly the most plentiful, these graceful giants can be found almost anywhere there is a shore, pond, lake, or marsh. They seem to be as comfortable near cities and people as they are in the most remote wilderness, and that opens up a host of possibilities – for the watchful photographer!
I’ve found that Great Blue Herons that live in close contact with people tend to be less skittish, and you can get a lot closer. You can observe them in their natural behaviors of feeding, courting, nesting and preening – with far less frustration if you only choose city birds over country birds!
Now, you might say, “that’s cheating!” But, I’d respond that a majority of the best photographs I have of Great Blues were taken in areas close to civilization. And conversely, the photos I’ve taken of these birds in the wilderness tend to be from farther away, with less candid and spontaneous poses.
So, without further ado, let’s explore the world of the Great Blue Heron…
Great Blue Herons (which I will henceforth abbreviate as “GBH”) are,as I mentioned, the largest of the North American Herons. They commonly reach a length from nose to tail of 45-46” (1.15m), and seem much taller when they stand on their long legs. They have an enormous wingspan, reaching up to 72” (1.8m). They are generally grey, but have a speckled neck, a white crown stripe on the head, and dark blue/gray primaries. They also sport a long black plume starting as a stripe over their eye and trailing off the back of the head. Seeing one of these birds take flight is a magnificent sight.
They don’t start out this big, of course. The GBH nests in the winter to spring, and builds its rather large nest in trees, and occasionally on the ground in isolated areas, such as this nest in a south Florida marsh:
As a study in contrast, here is a treetop nest with a pair of GBH adults in attendance:
The “little” ones aren’t all that small. A GBH will lay from 2-6 eggs, and the young emerge covered in fuzz, with tiny wings. Over a couple of months, as they grow, they start to develop the feathers more in the pattern of adult birds. Here is a young bird nearly fledged, but still in the nest:
Feeding and behavior
The GBH is a great bird to watch. If you find one (and you will, if you look) near a pier, dock, or anywhere that fishermen congregate, you’ll find at least one GBH – more than likely, several, equally spaced and “managing” their own section of the waterfront. They become quite bold when the fishing is good, and will keep a close eye whenever a fisherman pulls one in – a potential meal for the patient GBH!
And they don’t seem at all timid about taking a fish, regardless of the size. They eat their fish whole, head-first, and their neck stretches quite a bit to accommodate the passage of their meal. It’s actually kind of funny to see such a long-necked bird eat a large fish – you can watch it work its way down their neck. And, once they’ve swallowed it, they’ll be sure to be back for more.
The GBH is quite capable of fishing on his own, though. Keep watching and you’re bound to see them wading through the shallows, spearing small fish or snatching up crustaceans. If you’re lucky enough to find one in an open marsh, you may even catch one “canopy fishing” the same way that the Reddish Egret is famous for doing.
Once they’ve caught their prey, herons will typically head off to the nearest rock, post or other dry point to finish off their meal. Keep those cameras at the ready, as you never know what you’re likely to see… Always the same, yet always something different with the Great Blue Heron.
Once meal time is over, the preening starts. Heck, preening happens before meals, too, and just about any time the birds aren’t busy.
A not too distant cousin
In parts of southwest Florida, from the upper Florida Keys and Florida Bay to as far north as Tampa Bay, you can find a white colored version of the GBH – a bird known as the Great White Heron. While it is still debated whether the GWH is truly a different species from the GBH (or “just” a color morph), the similarities are obvious – from the overall size to the leg and beak colorings. The main difference is the white feathers:
As you can see, the same, only different… nevertheless, Great Heron, through and through, regardless of the feathers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Great Blue Heron, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the photographs as well. Now, get those cameras out, and go find your local GBH; you know where he lives!
Next week: we’ll take a look at the Little Blue Heron.