Great Blue Herons
Cloaked in battleship-gray plumage set off by dark eyebrow feathers (adults sport a shaggy neck fringe), great blues perch on long, pale, backward-bending legs and hunt with a six-inch-long, dagger-sharp bill. Look for these elegant birds in both fresh- and saltwater marshes, ponds, and lakes below 5,000 feet from coast to coast.
Startle a heron, and it will leap into the air with a loud kraak while rising gracefully on its slow-beating wings that can span six feet. In flight, they retract their necks into an S-shaped curve and trail their legs behind them like modern-day feathered pterodactyls. Herons in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region migrate south in winter when food becomes scarce, and return each spring to the same breeding grounds.
Herons often congregate in colonies (rookeries) containing more than 100 pairs. In spring, males attract females by gathering sticks that the females then use to build three-foot-wide nests in tall, often dead, trees. Both parents incubate eggs and care for chicks. If a predator like a bald eagle or raccoon kills a heron in a rookery, the entire group will abandon the site.
Standing motionless, a solitary heron scans the shallows for small fish. Spotting one, the bird compresses its neck, wades forward, and then abruptly plunges its head underwater, pinching the fish in its bill. Thanks to their long legs, herons can wade deeper than other shorebirds, and are known to stalk frogs, salamanders, snakes, shrimp, aquatic insects, even rodents. Like many anglers, herons hunt mainly at dawn or dusk, and they aggressively defend their favorite territories.
With few natural predators, the heron’s biggest menace is human disturbance. While not threatened (more than 250,000 birds can be found in the United States), herons are very sensitive to wetland habitat destruction and noise, both of which can lead to nest failure. Stay at least 1,000 feet away from nests, especially from March to August when chicks are present, and move back if a heron issues a warning call that sounds like fraunk.