Migrating Great Blue Herons have arrived to Cape Ann, where they join the small number of Great Blues that overwinter in New England. Look for them in marsh, pond, and along the shoreline.
Contemplating taking flight, the perching juvenile Great Blue Heron moved its feet slowly, while turning to face the shore, then gracefully lifted its wings and departed, with a very loud and un-elegant QWOCK.
No sign of Cape Ann’s Great Blue Herons since the big Thanksgiving Day freeze. Two days into the frigid temperatures, the last one observed appeared very unhappy. The unfrozen bits of water were too cold to forage. He seemed so cold, wasn’t fishing at all, and was only standing on the shore, in the glummest manner. I urged him onward, worried his frozen self might look tempting to a coyote, and hope perhaps he departed under the brilliant light of the full November Frost Moon.
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This happened today! Yesterday morning I woke up thinking about Great Blue Herons and wrote a bit about them and posted lots of photos i had been collecting over the past few months. Today on my morning walk there was an overhead quarking commotion and five were on the wing. I wasn’t expecting to see that at all and only caught the tail end, but I had never seen so many flying together. The birds were majestic and it was truly spectacular. I tried to figure out where they had come from and if they landed, but no luck. I wonder if they were migrating, trying to get ahead of the pending nor’easter.
Mostly elegant, though sometimes appearing comically Pterodactylus-like, the Great Blue Heron is found in nearly every region of the United States, Mexico, and Central America, as well as the southern provinces of Canada.
Its light weight, a mere five pounds, belies the fact that the Great Blue Heron is North America’s largest heron, with a wingspan of up to six and a half feet and a height of four and a half feet. I write elegant because it truly has a grace unsurpassed when in repose or waiting to strike a fish. Images of Pterodactylus come to mind when you see the bird battling for territory with other herons or flapping about in a tree top; the Heron loses all its sophisticated exquisiteness, transformed into what looks like a great winged beast.
Pterodactylus images courtesy wiki commons media
This summer past was a tremendous year for observing herons and egrets on Cape Ann. Our marshes, ponds, and waterways were rife with Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Green Herons, American Bitterns, and especially Great Blue Herons.
Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, Cape Ann
At nearly every location Great Blue Herons were seen foraging either with a flock of mixed herons and egrets, or in a solitary manner. Great Blue Herons hunt day and night and I would often find them at daybreak. They will stand quietly for hours, repeatedly striking the water with lightning bolt swiftness, almost always resurfacing with fish or frog. Great Blue Herons are survivalists and their diet is wide ranging, including large and small fish, frogs, insects, small mammals, and even other birds. Because of its highly varied diet, the Great Blue Heron is able to spend winters further north than most other species of herons and egrets. Even when after waters freeze, we still see them on our shores well into December.
Great Blue Herons are sometimes mistakenly referred to as cranes, which they are not. Cranes are entirely different species. Bas relief at Crane Estate, Ipswich.
Don’t you think it amazing how perfectly these largest of North America’s herons meld with the surrounding landscape?
Here are some moments from this past summer and autumn observing the elusively elegant (mostly), and sometimes comical, Great Blue Heron.
Fishing – Great Blue Herons capture small fish and amphibians by plunging into water and then swallowing whole the prey. They also use their powerful bills like a dagger to spear larger fish.
Last week we posted a photo of a group of Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets all foraging together on a rainy morning. The Great Blue Herons are so perfectly camouflaged when perched on the rocky shoreline and we asked how many GBH folks could see. Reader Julie W. saw the most and she even sent the photo back with the Great Blues circled. Thank you Julie for taking the time to do that!!
What do Great Blue Herons, North America’s largest species of herons, eat? Because they feed in a variety of both freshwater and saltwater habitats, their diet is richly varied. Great Blue Herons dine on small fish, crabs, shrimp, mice, rats, voles, frogs, salamanders, turtles, gophers, snakes, many species of small waterbirds including ducks and ducklings, and insects.
Oftentimes when I come upon a Great Blue Heron fishing in the marsh at dawn, they appear as though they have been there for some time, as though they are nearly finished feeding for the morning. That’s because they may very well be done. Great Blue Herons have specialized rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes which allows them to hunt both day and night!
Outtakes from films in progress, too pretty to delete. In thinking about music for my forthcoming film I found this beautiful pan flute song “Mochica en la Noche” by Santiago y Sus Flautes de Pan. The evocative music and heron in the vivid rising sun just felt like a perfect pairing.
There are several theories as to why birds, especially large wading birds such as herons and flamingoes, stand on one leg, or “unipedal resting” as scientist like to refer to the trait. The seemingly most convincing and best-proved theory is that birds stand on one leg to conserve body heat. It is shown that birds stand on one leg more often when wading, which again points to the thermoregulation hypothesis because water draws away more body heat.
Standing on one leg is not necessarily a sleeping and resting habit. I have filmed Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets meticulously preening while standing on one leg. The characteristic is not limited to large wading birds; species with shorter legs, including ducks and swans, also stand on one leg. Another popular theory suggests that wading birds stand on one leg to look less suspicious to aquatic prey.
To read more about avian sensory physiology, visit the website of Professor Dr. Reinhold Necker. Additional images courtesy Professor Necker’s website.
Good Harbor Beach, with Great Blue Heron and mini time-lapse sunrise towards the end.
Oftentimes I see herons, gulls, and crows fishing peaceably together at daybreak. Not this morning! The heron vigorously defends its territory, while the crow has a reputation for stealing what others catch, and both are very hungry. Look for the heron eating an eel at about @1 minute 40 seconds.
No borrowed music in this mini film; the sound of crickets, shorebirds, surf, and train whistle make a song of their own, and I really wanted the heron’s loud quarking heard. Creating these mini films helps to organize B-roll for my Monarch film and the next daybreak video is the foggy morning sunrise with the whimbrels.