Wildlife of the Week!

© Five Star Whale Watching/ Andrew Lees. A Great Blue Heron peacefully rests on a wooden piling as the sun sets in the Salish Sea.

Welcome to a new Wildlife of the Week. We have chosen a favorite species of ours to reflect on this week! Can anybody guess who this bird is, from the image below? There is such a high diversity of birds in the terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats of the Salish Sea, all contributing to the maintenance of a healthy ecosystem in their own way. You may have spotted this species fishing in shallow shores, or resting in harbours, even on manmade structures. An elegant, cherished and familiar species, the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is synonymous with the Salish Sea and all of its beauty. This is the largest Heron species in North America, and is a sincere sight to encounter. To learn more about this Heron, read on below!

The Great Blue Heron is a tall and light bird that is a wader; meaning individuals mainly dwell in aquatic areas to hunt and fish for food. The Great Blue Heron is a tall bird with distinctly long legs as well as a long, thin neck. They grow to a vertical height of about 3.2- 4.5 feet and an impressive maximum wingspan of over 5 or 6 feet wide. Other than some colour morphs and subspecies in select areas, the Great Blue Heron’s colour patterns reflect its namesake. The bird is mostly shades of blue and gray on its body, with a distinct black stripe across the top of the head and eye. Feather plumes on its head and body give the bird a striking, ruffled appearance. The orange bill on top of the S-shaped neck is used strategically for hunting, and appears “dagger-like” with its pointed, long triangular shape. Contrary to its tall and elongated features, this heron weighs little; ranging from a little over 4 pounds to 7 pounds at most. This is attributed mostly to very light, hollow bones as in other birds. 

As mentioned, the Great Blue Heron is the largest species of heron in North America. The species is found throughout North America, and on the Pacific Coast it may be found in areas as north as Alaska and as south as northern regions of South America (mostly Venezuela and Colombia). Therefore, some populations are believed to be migratory, heading to Central America, northern South America or even the Caribbean. Other populations may remain on the Pacific Coast year-round in areas mentioned above. You might spot a Great Blue Heron in wetlands, along marine shorelines, riverbanks, lakes, and even grasslands and fields with freshwater sources such as ponds. The Great Blue heron is not only the largest heron in North America, but also the most common. Have you seen a Great Blue Heron before? 

A well-known fisher, the Great Blue Heron utilizes aquatic habitats in order to find prey. The bird is extremely quick, silent and accurate, allowing it to be a deadly predator to fish, small creatures (e.g. birds, voles, amphibians) and invertebrate prey. The method in which the Great Blue Heron utilizes is a quiet waiting process; the bird will walk or stand almost silently in shallow water (has been spotted floating atop kelp in marine habitats as well). With specialized vision, the bird is able to utilize both day and night to hunt. By forcing its neck and bill forward, it can pierce and kill prey that come into its vicinity. In another technique, the bird has been seen to choke fish in its long, slender neck. If you have ever witnessed a Great Blue Heron hunting for its prey, you would likely remember witnessing the graceful stealth of this impressive bird. 

The Great Blue Heron incubates, raises and feeds young cooperatively in nests built mostly by the female on a site selected by the male. The nests constructed of sticks may be spotted in a number of locations; in trees of varying heights, shrubbery, or on the ground. Nests are typically part of a nesting colony. There are usually 1-2 broods a year, depending on which population of Great Blue Heron is being discussed. With each brood, eggs number between 2-7 and stay with their parents until they age roughly 65-90 days old (with flight occurring at about 60 days old). 

The Great Blue Heron is an icon to the Pacific Northwest, and fortunately the population appears to be in a stable, safe state. Humans may still unfortunately disrupt this species, especially nesting colonies. Climate change effects, such as heat waves, can endanger nestlings and persistent wildfires can destroy overall habitats. The Great Blue Heron is related to other birds such as Egrets and Bitterns. The maximum lifespan is estimated to be about 15 years for this species, but the oldest individual ever recorded was 24 years old. A truly mesmerizing creature on this coast, it is no surprise that so many consider this bird a mainstay sight of the Salish Sea. 

To try out your luck with some more Great Blue Heron information, try out some trivia below! 

  1. True or False? The “size class” that the Great Blue Heron is put into is referred to as “goose-sized or larger”. (ANS: TRUE). 
  2. Fill in the blanks. The Great Blue Heron may be commonly referred to as a ____ (crane, goose, or gull)? (ANS: Crane). 
  3. The subspecies that is all white is found in which U.S. state as well as a familiar chain of islands? (ANS: Florida and the Carribean). 

BONUS CHALLENGE: 

What colour are the eggs of the Great Blue Heron?

Pale blue. 

Authored by: Alexa D./ Five Star Whale Watching

To learn more about the Great Blue Heron, read on further with our References below! 

  1. “Great Blue Heron.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab. Cornell University. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Blue_Heron/overview
  2. “Great Blue Heron.” eBird. https://ebird.org/species/grbher3.
  3. “Great Blue Heron.” Guide to North American Birds. National Audubon Society. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-blue-heron
  4. “Great Blue Heron.” National Geographic Society. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/g/great-blue-heron/#close

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *