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The Great Blue Heron
By Mary Henzi

It’s morning in early April, one of those days that holds the promise of spring when the morning air is slightly warmer than the temperature of our almost thawed lakes and there is a whispy fog playing tag with the water: touching the surface here and there (“you’re it, no I’m it”) creating an indistinct line between water and land.  Something glides through the mist, big but oh so graceful, elusive to the eye at first, are they ghost birds floating above the surface of the water?  It is a trio of Great Blue Herons arriving from their winter sojourn somewhere considerably further south and warmer than here.  But they know, as well as we, that summer here in LITC means solace for the soul and great fishing, so they arrive early so as not to miss one shiny, wonderful moment of that season.  More probably because they need to heed the call of nature and get to the work of making nests and babies.

The only time I have seen more than a solitary great blue has been during that migration time in early spring.  (I have seen a group of three herons arrive here 2 years in a row at approximately the same time of year.)  The great blues generally travel and nest in colonies but may also occasionally do so in solitary or small groups.  When it comes to hunting, they are definitely solitary and males will earnestly defend their territory.  That is why you only see one at a time on our lakes.  Male and female birds look very much alike except the females are smaller so unless you see them standing side by side you may not be able to determine the sex of the bird.  Great Blues are also shy birds.  One of the birds which frequents our lakes likes to hang out in the creek inlet in front of our house and almost every day I experience the grace of a startled bird taking flight when I have opened the front door.  When the great blue takes wing, it tucks its long neck back into an S shape and its long legs trail behind.  Deep pumps of the long powerful wings help it gain speed and height. The bird stands 3 to 4 feet tall and has a wingspan of up to 6 feet.  It is a marvel that that much bird can be quietly airborne in a heartbeat.

Great Blues are noted for their patient hunting and fishing skills.  Many an angler could learn something about fishing from watching these serene creatures standing perfectly still or wading slowly in the lake shallows, their heads cocked left or right to carefully watch for approaching prey (fish, frogs, snakes and sometimes, birds and mice).  With a lightening quick grab their prey is taken with their long beaks, given a quick flip so that it can be swallowed head first  and whole.  (I watched one great blue wrestle with a 1 ½  ft. snake in an effort to get it down it’s throat.  It looked to be an exhausting affair but the bird won.)  If the prey is very large, they will bash it against a rock and pull it apart to eat it.  They later regurgitate pellets of indigestible matter.

Males select the nesting site (which could be last years nest), begin building or refurbishing a nest and try to attract a female to the site.  Great Blues form pairs early in the season (March or April) and waste no time producing 3 to 5 eggs which need to incubate for 28 days.  “Dad” sits on the nest during the day and hunts at night while “Mom” does the opposite.  Both parents are responsible for the rearing of the offspring and the fledglings are ready to leave the nest any time between 65 and ninety days.

Great Blues are really grey in color with a white crown at the top of their heads and a black mark that runs from behind the eye to the back of the head and terminates in a long black crest.  Their beautiful feathers were almost the cause of their extinction (as well as many other heron species) around the beginning of the 20th century when feathers were popular adornments for womens’ hats but today they are protected from hunting of any kind.  Like many other wildlife species, they are threatened by human activity; destruction of wetlands, logging and pollution.  Great Blues are attracted to beaver ponds and their ample presence in Northeastern PA seems to parallel the comeback of the beaver here.

The call of the Great Blue belies their grace and delicacy.  Should you have the privilege of hearing the call, it is a grumpy sounding, hoarse “grrrawk” and you find yourself looking around for the source of such a sound as it could not have come from that beautiful bird.  Don’t judge the bird by its call.  When you have the opportunity to observe a Great Blue on one of our lakes, move slowly and quietly, make yourself comfortable, watch and wait.  You will be rewarded with a display of unparalleled hunting skill and grace.  And if you can emit your own hoarse “grrrawk”, you might get an answer or more likely you will watch it glide away from you on ghost grey wings. 

•Fergus, Charles.  Wildlife of Pennsylvania and the Northeast.
Illustrated by Amelia Hansen.  Stackpole Books. 
Mechanicsburg, PA, 2000.
•Fergus, Chuck.  Pennsylvania Game Commission - State Wildlife Management Agency ,  “Wildlife Notes”. 
Hinterland Who’s Who,
Nature Works, “Great Blue Heron”,