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The Graceful Great Blue Heron

At almost any lake or river in North America, the great blue heron can be seen gracefully and efficiently hunting its prey. Whether flying majestically overhead or standing motionless at the water's edge on a still afternoon awaiting an unsuspecting fish, the great blue heron perfectly embodies grace and elegance.

Every time I see one flying alongside the boat, or coming in to shore for a landing, I am stopped in my tracks by the beauty of this bird in flight. Great blue herons have a short, blunt tail, extremely long legs and neck, and a sharp bill. Their legs trail behind their body when they fly. Their flight is easily recognizable by slow, powerful strokes of their graceful wings that can span six feet. I have seen reports that the heron can fly up to about 20 mph. I have personally seen herons fly alongside our boat or Jet Ski at around 30 mph, according to the speedometer, for some distance.

The great blue heron's natural habitats include rivers, lake edges, marshes, saltwater shores, and swamps. They usually nest in trees near water. The great blue heron fishes during the night as well as the day. It is most active around dawn and dusk. There are two main methods of hunting used by the great blue heron. They can be seen hunting by either "Standing" or "Walking Slowly." When "Standing" it will stand motionless in a shallow pool of water, usually on one foot, waiting patiently until a fish comes close enough to pluck from the water. When "Walking Slowly" the bird carefully treads forward, using its long legs to wade quietly and stealthily in shallow water, while keeping its neck stretched outward and forward. If it catches a small fish it will immediately swallow it. If the fish is too large the heron will take it onto the shore, kill it by beating it on the ground, then pick it apart, biting off bits and pieces. The great blue heron's diet consists mostly of small fish. They also eat frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, shrimps, crabs, crayfish, small rodents, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and many other aquatic insects.

You may hear a heron’s distinct soft "kraak" or “graak” when it is disturbed or in flight. This is usually my cue to look around and see where the heron is. Otherwise this is a relatively quiet bird. The heron will call "fraunk" when disturbed near its nest, or "ar" when greeting other members of its species.

Herons form pair bonds in March and April. Pairs begin nesting after a series of courtship rituals performed by both sexes. Their occipital crests are raised during courtship and both sexes change body coloration, with the male displaying brighter colors. Nests are built in trees or bushes near the water. A single pair may nest together, or many pairs may form a colony. Their colonies are sometimes called heronries or rookeries. The female typically lays 3-6 eggs, which hatch about a month later. The young herons are ready to leave the nest about two months later. The young are initially fed a diet of regurgitated food, but eventually eat whole fish dropped into the nest. If they can survive their first winter, they may live as long as fifteen years.

There are many threats to the survival of the species. Loss of nesting sites, and the deterioration of water quality and wetland habitat threaten them. Artificial hardening of shorelines with bulk heading reduces new nesting areas. Poor water quality reduces the amount of large fish and invertebrate species for them to feed on. If suitable feeding and nesting areas are not maintained, the population of great blue herons will decline. Toxic chemicals entering the water from runoff and industrial discharge pose another threat. Although great blue herons appear to tolerate low levels of pollutants, chemicals can move through the food chain, accumulating in the tissues of prey and eventually causing reproductive failure in the herons.

If you have a dock or beach area you may experience problems with heron excrement and feathers littering them. This can be dangerous, damaging and annoying. Take precautions when cleaning any bird droppings, as there is a risk to your health. Protective clothing and use of a respirator is recommended to minimize exposure.

Great blue herons cannot be shot or intentionally damaged, as the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects them. However, there are many methods available to repel birds from your property without harming them. Visual deterrents such as owl figures or moving banners, flags or balloons can be used to keep herons and other birds away from these areas. Tying a scratched or blank compact disc where it will catch the breeze in the area will also help. Iridescent tape can give the same results. These are shiny and move with the wind, keeping birds away from the area. There are also sonic and bird attack noisemakers that will repel unwanted birds, but they typically require batteries or some other power source. There are also some bird repellants that use a nontoxic sticky gel to deter birds from an area, as well as netting and mechanical barriers in the form of spikes and coils to prevent birds from landing on surfaces.



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