Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Majestic Great Blue Heron


Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Majestic Great Blue Heron

The Majestic Great Blue Heron

I remember very clearly the first time I saw a great blue heron. It was in the early 1970s and I was hiking with friends at a large protected forest and wetlands habitat in Concord, MA, when suddenly a mature great blue heron slowly took flight from the shore of a small pond. We stood with mouths agape as it circled the pond and gracefully flew over the tree line. I had no idea what type of bird it was, and for a moment thought I was witnessing the return of the pterodactyl dinosaur until one of my friends said, “oh my goodness a great blue heron.” None of us that day had ever seen one before. Four decades later, I see them frequently.

There are few birds in our region as beautiful and graceful as the great blue heron. With a wingspan of six feet and a length of more than three feet, they are the largest bird in our region. When flying, their deliberate and deep wingbeats, long legs stretched out behind them, and necks coiled back in an S-shape make great blue herons easily recognizable.

When I paddle along our region’s rivers, I frequently see the solitary hunter wading on long legs along the river bank, slowly and silently creeping with keen eyes peering into the shallows for a tasty frog or fish.

When my daughter Julia was about 3 years old, the lake across the street from our house was almost completely drained for repairs to the dam and spillway. The fish, turtles and frogs were concentrated into smaller and smaller pools in the middle of the lake, making them an easy target for the herons. That summer we saw many great blue herons on our daily walks to the lake and it was the very first bird she could identify.

The great blue heron can be deceiving. They fly slowly, cruising the rivers and coastlines. They stand like a motionless statue on the river bank and then take painfully slow, deliberate steps wading into the shallow water. But when prey is spotted they strike lightning fast into the water with their long bills to snap up a fish or frog.

My go-to source of online bird information is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, “All About Birds” at www.allaboutbirds.org.  Here are a few interesting facts about great blue herons from that website.

  • Great blue herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen.
  • Great blue herons can hunt day and night thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.
  • Despite their impressive size, great blue herons weigh only 5 to 6 pounds thanks in part to their hollow bones—a feature all birds share.
  • The white-colored form of the great blue heron, known as the “great white heron,” is found almost exclusively in shallow marine waters along the coast of southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Caribbean.
  • The oldest recorded great blue heron was found in Texas when it was at least 24 years, 6 months old.

Great blue herons have taken to the freshwater habitats we have here in The Last Green Valley, and are also found in coastal saltwater habitats and even forage in grasslands, farm fields and wetlands. They will eat most anything within striking distance, with fish and amphibians being their primary food.  They will also eat small mammals, insects and even other birds. They will grab small prey with their strong mandibles or use their bill like a dagger to impale larger fish.

Breeding herons nest in colonies or rookeries in tall trees that are usually surrounded by water. Some large rookeries have been known to number hundreds of pairs.  I know of a rookery of about 15 nests on private land and have visited it with the landowner. The trees are mostly tall dead white pines in a flooded beaver pond.

The owner told me about the elaborate courtship ritual he has observed including passing a stick from one mate to the other. When one mate arrives to take over nesting duties, both birds erect their plumes and “clapper” their bill tips.

Pairs are mostly monogamous during a season, but they choose new partners each year. The male collects most of the nesting material, gathering sticks from the ground and nearby shrubs and trees, and also pilfering from unguarded and abandoned nests. The male presents the material to the female, who weaves a platform and a saucer-shaped nest cup, lining it with pine needles, moss, reeds, dry grass, leaves, or small twigs.

Nest building can take from 3 days to 2 weeks, with the finished nest ranging from a simple platform of approximately 20 inches across to more elaborate structures used over multiple years that can reach 4 feet across and nearly 3 feet deep.

According to the North American Breeding Birds Survey, great blue heron numbers are stable and have generally increased in the U.S. between 1966 and 2014. Population declines have occurred in some areas, particularly in the “great white heron” group in southern Florida, where elevated mercury levels in local waterways may be a factor.

The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 83,000 breeding great blue herons. The great white heron, however, is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List that includes birds at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action.

Great blue herons can be found throughout the year all over North America, though most populations in Canada are present only during the breeding season, and most populations in Mexico are only present during the winter.  Here in The Last Green Valley, when our rivers and lakes are frozen, I have seen herons below some of our larger dams where there is still moving water.

Our region is still 77% undeveloped land with large rivers, many lakes, ponds and streams —  perfect wetland habitat that the great blue heron depends on for feeding and breeding. While our region is the perfect home for these birds, we must be ever mindful that these birds are vulnerable to habitat loss due to impacts of traffic, logging, motorboats, and other human intrusions that can disrupt nesting colonies.

The beautiful and majestic great blue heron is just one example of the abundant wildlife that we have here in The Last Green Valley. We are so fortunate to live in a region that is rich in natural resources. I hope you’ll join me to care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

 Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the previous article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.


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