Too often we tend to overlook the birds we see the most, quickly glancing past them in our hurry to see something new and different. While it’s fun to learn about exotic species such as penguins and flamingos, this week we’re turning to one of the most common and frequently seen but often underappreciated wading birds – the great blue heron.
Name: Great Blue Heron
Scientific Name: Ardea herodias
Scientific Family: Ardeidae (Herons)
Habitat: Widespread in swamps or marsh habitats, as well as alongside riverbanks, lakes or even coastlines, flooded fields or damp meadows. Even small patches of habitat are suitable for great blue herons, and they may visit drainage ditches, backyard ponds or temporary gullies.
Range: These are year-round residents throughout much of the continental United States, though they are only found in the northern Great Plains, midwestern region and northern New England during the summer breeding season, when their range also extends into southern Canada. Great blue herons are also found year-round along the Pacific coast north into Alaska, south into the Baja peninsula, along both the eastern and western coasts of Mexico, and in the Caribbean. In winter, these birds migrate into Mexico and as far south as the northern edge of South America.
These birds are aptly named – they are indeed great in terms of height, and their slate blue-gray plumage is their most obvious color. Yet their names are also inadequate, and birders should watch for the rich, rust-colored thighs, the deeper blue-black and rusty patch on the shoulders and the white-and-blue-black striped head. The pale throat shows dark vertical streaks, and the bill is yellow smudged with gray. In flight, these birds show a bold wing pattern with pale blue-gray at the front and darker blue-black at the back. The thin, thready plumes on the back of the head and the chest are also great to see.
Just as distinctive as this bird’s colors and plumage are its behaviors. While foraging, great blue herons walk slowly and deliberately, with their necks slightly curved as they poise themselves to stab at prey with their dagger-like bills. They may remain still for hours in a good hunting spot, and when they take flight, their legs are stretched out long and spindly behind them, but their necks are held in a tight S-shape. Wing beats are slow and steady.
These birds are amazing to see, but because they are so easily recognized, they are often passed over by birders eager to see more or different species. Watch a great blue heron long enough, however, and you may be privileged to see one of these stately birds stab at a large fish and whack it on a nearby rock or log to kill it before swallowing it whole – even a huge fish you wouldn’t think they could actually swallow, but their throats expand generously to accommodate even the biggest bites. Anything they can catch is suitable prey, and great blue herons have been seen to eat snakes, frogs, rats, small birds, and even baby alligators.
Great blue herons are great indeed, and seeing one is a great way to chase away the blues!