Delmarva’s Shorebird: The Great Blue Heron

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Magnificent and graceful, with an incongruous squawking song, the Great Blue Heron is an archetype of the wildlife which inhabits our area. When you talk about shorebirds many people know immediately that you are talking about a Great Blue Heron.

Artists love to try and capture their unique beauty. These birds never cease to intrigue us as they stalk the shorelines and cruise the skies looking like ancient winged dinosaurs.

Great Blue Herons are the tallest birds that live here on Delmarva. The only other bird here with a larger wingspan and weight is the Bald Eagle. Surprisingly this large bird only weighs about five or six pounds. This is because bird bones are hollow.

Great Blue Herons live all over North America. Some (though not all) bird guides say they migrate south for the winter. Here they seem to be year round residents. They eat fish, crabs, rodents and small birds. They are not timid about hunting in people's back yards. People who keep garden koi ponds have to keep a wire grate over the top to protect their fish. Though they usually hunt from the ground along waterways, they roost and nest in trees.

Great Blues are territorial. At some of my usual birding haunts I will often see one in exactly the same place keeping watch over its domain. They are fond of streams, ponds, and drainage ditches. Just before dusk on a low tide, if you happen to be on the bay, you will see Great Blues in the company of egrets and ibises flocking to the open waters to fish. Most of the time they travel alone; however they nest in large colonies in hard to find isolated areas.

It is not at all hard to find a Great Blue Heron in our region. In fact my own spouse makes fun whenever I return from birding to announce that I got a good shot of a Great Blue Heron. "What - you don't have enough pictures of them?"

I have lost track of the number of times I have accidentally flushed one when walking slowly on tiptoes up to the edge of the marsh to take a picture of something else, not seeing it in my peripheral vision. I scare the bird. Suddenly it flies up and it scares me.

When all the other birds around here seem to have gone into hiding I can usually count on seeing a Great Blue, thought it is not always easy to get a good picture. They are very shy and don't like to be disturbed while hunting.

The trick to getting a good picture of a Blue Heron is to regularly visit a spot where you have seen one and spend some time there sitting quietly. In a way you are entering a relationship with the bird. They will never intentionally get really close to you. But once they get used to you they may let you get in photographic range particularly if you have a zoom lens.

You can see a Great Blue Heron at almost any park or wildlife refuge in our area, and maybe even in your own neighborhood. You can read more about them and see live nesting video at the Cornell University Ornithology website