Great Blue Heron - A large and common wader

by Dave Hanks

I have often seen this large, bluish-gray, stately bird along our waterways stalking fish, frogs, and other aquatic forms of animal life. What I didn’t know, and was a real revelation to me, was that they would hunt on land. One morning in northern Arizona, I saw this bird on a park lawn. He seemed oblivious to me and so I approached him. Much to my surprise he was in a stalking mode and was creeping quietly up to a ground squirrel hole. Suddenly his beak shot down into the hole and reappeared with a ground squirrel in it. Positioning the squirrel lengthwise, he swallowed it in one gulp. This was definitely a new experience for my wife and me. Herons have been known to choke to death as a result of trying to swallow something too large.

This long-necked species stands 46” tall with a 72” wing span. Its guttural croak seems out of character for such a beautiful bird and is startling because you don’t expect it. It is often misconstrued to be a crane. Cranes are not common in Cassia County. Identifying features are: a black stripe above the eye, a black head plume, long yellow bill, white face, black shoulder patch, and a red upper leg. There is a white phase that is found along the gulf coast, especially in southern Florida.

Herons nest in trees in fairly large groups called rookeries. The Great Blue lays 2 to 7 pale blue eggs. She incubates them for 26 to 30 days and it then takes 2 months before the young fledge. She has only one mate per year and mating takes place from March through May. They like shallow water and fish hatcheries – where they can become a nuisance. Studies have shown that they are more apt to eat sick fish, which are usually closer to the waters surface than healthy ones.

Great Blue Herons are well established across America. They suffered much less from the women’s hat plume craze than did egrets and have thrived.

(Feeling secure in the sedges)