Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is our largest and most widespread Heron. This is the bird that first sparked my interest in birding.  I kept seeing these stately birds fishing as I took my morning walk. Easily the granddaddy of all of the herons, it stands about four feet high and has an impressive 6-foot wing span! It is also a suburb fisherman. Great Blue Heron|Whittier Narrows|South El Monte, CA By controlling its neck muscles, it can swallow a fish much larger than its long slender neck. If you look closely, you can even see the fish going down its neck!  It is a fairly easy bird to photograph as long as you don’t approach too closely.  If you do, it will give can alarm call of four harsh squawks and take off flying.  But, if you are fast enough, it might be another good photo op!

Description

The adult Blue Heron is pale lavender-gray with darker feathers on it wings, a gray neck streaked with black, a white face, a pale crown and has long black head plumbs. It has a yellow-gray dagger-like bill. Its legs are grayish with pinkish thigh feathers.  The sexes are similar although the male is larger than the female (which is hard to tell unless you see them together). It is the largest long-legged bird next to the crane. In flight, it has a slow wing beat and you will see it with its neck drawn in and its feet trailing. During breeding, the Great Blue Heron’s bill and lower legs change from yellow to orange and the area around the bill turns a bright blue.  It sports long ornate head plumbs on its head, chest, and back. The juvenile has a dark crown and is not as brightly colored as an adult.  It has gray streaking on its fore neck and breast. It will not reach full adult coloring or have head plumbs until it is 3 years old.

Range and Habitat

The Great Blue Heron is found in a variety of wetlands; in marshes, irrigation ditches, streams, shores, tidal flats and kelp beds and on lawns.

Behavior

You might see it perched in trees, but most of us will catch sight one while it is foraging. It can usually be found silently stalking its prey at dawn and dusk.  It stands motionless with its head up or folded between its shoulders as it hunts for fish, frogs and crayfish.  It will also hunt mice, gophers, small birds, insects and other small prey.  Because it has a wide choice of available food, it can remain further north during the winter.  Its voice is a loud “kronk” or “grate”.

Mating and Nesting

I am always amazed to see a huge, gangly, and awkward heron land gracefully at the top of trees where it nests in colonies. The male arrives at the nesting site before the female and gathers materials for the nest. With at lot of displaying and shrieking, he presents his gifts to the female and she weaves them into a nest. The nest is built on a platform of sticks or an old nest is repaired (old nests are often used for years). The female lays 3-6 greenish-bluish eggs in the nest which is lined with leaves, and other plants. When a Blue Heron joins its mate on the nest, a greeting ceremony always takes place to appease the sitting heron. If food is not readily available, the parents will only feed one or two aggressive chicks; the rest might starve or be physically kicked out of the nest. When food is plentiful, they may put food right near the weakest chick. (See video of Great Blue Herons from the webcam at Cornell:  Normally,  the parents feed the chicks by regurgitating fish into their mouths. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=2433  The young Blue Herons leave the nest in about 10 weeks and are fully independent of their parents.

Great Blue Heron Gallery