Great Blue Heron is the king of the wading birds


I love to watch blue herons standing motionless while waiting for prey. They are such graceful and focused hunters. They also must be quite adaptable, since they have such a large native range.

In eastern North Carolina they can be found in every month of the year. I even can recall seeing a few as far north as southern Maine in the winter. That’s rare, but they are a tough bird. Usually from New York northward they fly south for the winter.

Herons are long legged birds that stand about three feet tall. They have a wingspan of about six feet and I swear I’ve seen bigger ones. They look huge but only weight five or six pounds. Sometimes the neck feathers are preened to look smooth and other times the neck feathers look frayed. This is normal.

Herons are often mistaken for cranes by some people. Many folks confuse herons with egrets. If you see a greyish bird with an s-shaped neck, it’s a heron. Cranes have shorter necks and egrets usually have longer necks than cranes and straighter ones than herons.

Egrets are normally white, but there is a white form of great blue heron. It’s not native north of Florida, so most of our white long-legged birds are egrets. Another way to tell these birds apart is that egrets have black legs and herons have lighter colored legs. Sandhill cranes have dark legs too, but not as dark as egrets. All three of these can be large birds.

We have a ton of herons on our coastal plain rivers, marshes, ditches and swamps. They wade in the shallows and are quite adept at catching frogs, crayfish and small fish. Herons catch larger fish by impaling them with their sharp beaks. These skilled hunters also catch snakes and turtles. Herons can even hunt at night as they have great eyesight even in low light.

Unfortunately, they are also efficient at catching fish from aquaculture facilities too. These amphibious birds are protected, so killing them is out of the question. Other techniques must be used, like employing a few border collies to harass them so they go elsewhere.

Herons like to nest in dead trees, but they will nest in live ones or on the ground if trees aren’t available. Male herons are the initial nest builders, collecting sticks and other debris. The female then joins in the nest construction and knits everything together. Nests are usually two to four feet in diameter.

Females lay from two to six pale blue eggs about the size of large chicken eggs. Incubation time is approximately four weeks and heron pairs usually raise one to two broods per year. Young birds begin to fledge at about two months and are gone from the nest in three.

Habitat destruction is the biggest threat facing herons. Habitat has actually improved in many places in recent years. This is partly because of the resurgence of beavers in many areas of its range. We have more in this area.

Blue heron picking its way through a Tupelo swamp

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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2 Responses to Great Blue Heron is the king of the wading birds

  1. Pingback: Great Blue Heron is the king of the wading birds | tedmanzer – Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog

  2. tonytomeo says:

    Those things live out here too! They are big and scary. If I get too close to one without knowing it is there, it opens its wings up very wide to let me know it is busy. I will not get close to it. They eat fish out of the irrigation pond, but I do not mind sharing. There are plenty to go around. When we get enough rain, they come to town to get GOPHERS as they flee the flooding lawn in the Park!

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