Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re walking on a path along a marsh or river or harbor and suddenly you feel like you’re being watched? You look around and don’t see any people but then you spot the gigantic bird standing a few feet out in the water and you realize it’s been watching you the whole time.
The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest heron in North America and the only one that seems to stare at me on a regular basis. It is gigantic a bird – herons can be over four feet tall and have a wingspan of over seven feet. Yet, for all of their size, great blue herons are both delicate and elegant looking. Their bluish-gray wings and bodies, long spindly legs, and white heads with black caps and long plumes often remind me of a 1940’s photograph of an elderly society woman, in a ruffled boa or cape, heading out for a night at the opera.
However, unlike most elderly society ladies, herons are wading birds and thus they are often found standing in water. If they’re not watching you, they are probably watching the water – they eat small fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimp, crabs, insects, pretty much the same stuff you can order at any greasy fish n’ chips shack. Herons stand or meander slowly through the water until they see something that looks tasty and then they strike at the meal quickly with their spear-like bill.
Victoria, BC, where I live, is home to a large population of great blue herons but they are pretty common to all of North America and can be found from Alaska to Florida to Mexico depending on the season and their migratory patterns. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the herons don’t migrate much. In Victoria the herons belong to a sub-species, Ardrea herodias fannini, that are year round residents of the city.
Herons nest in colonies - called, well, heronries - in tall trees or bushes that are usually near the water. These colonies can have anywhere between a half dozen to several hundred large stick nests. Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park is home to a large heronry and this time of year is the perfect time to go watch them (and be watched by them). There’s something about strolling through a city park and looking up and seeing what appears to be a dozen elegant, elderly ladies sitting 50 feet up in a tree. Just in case you don’t live in or near Victoria, the city has been good enough to set up a live webcam of Beacon Hill Park’s heronry. Be sure to check out heroncam.com for the sort of feathered, elderly, society, ladycam action that goes on in the back corners of that park.
Of course, as elegant as they are, Great Blue Heron’s are never very elderly. Victoria’s heroncam.com site states that 69% of all great blue heron’s die in their first year while the oldest live to be about 23 years.
So take a moment this spring to walk or have a picnic along some water or in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park and when you suddenly feel like you’re being watched, try not to be bothered by that elegant lady – the one standing in the water or high in a tree – that’s staring at you. Instead grab a cold Blue Heron Pale Ale from your picnic basket and raise a friendly toast to these birds and try not to stare when they swallow a live frog in return.
[Editors note - Lately, I’ve been asked why I haven’t expanded my Biology! category - a series of posts about interesting, fascinating, and/or horrible animals. So, as demanded, here is yet another animal which I haven’t sat on.]