Great blue herons have majestic beauty about them

By Emma Shelly
Sept. 7, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron   Contributed photo by Emma Shelly for The Victoria Advocate

Granted, they aren't the rarest bird around by a long shot, and they aren't exactly a colorful bird either, but there's something I've always loved about great blue herons. Part of it is their size - they're the largest North American heron, coming in between 3.5-4.5 feet tall. It's impressive to see something so large flapping so silently down the waterways.

But most of it is their intensity. These are predatory birds, and they look it - from their pointed spike of a beak to their curving S-shaped neck, which always seems ready to strike, even at rest.

It's estimated that they spend almost 90 percent of their waking hours any given day stalking prey, which can be anything from fish to frogs to small mammals to other birds. If you've ever watched a heron hunt, their patience is fascinating. You can almost see their world narrow down to whatever it is just below the water that's caught their attention. That long neck might quiver, might weave a little back and forth, then the beak flashes down without warning. If you blink, you might miss the strike.

One of my labmates in graduate school was also fascinated by herons. Her PhD was all about how a heron's eye works: More specifically, how they can deal with things like reflection and refraction.

If you've ever dropped anything in a pool or in the shallows of the beach, you know just how misleading the glare and the water makes retrieving it. You reach for it and the object's much farther away or the image was strangely bent so you end up missing it by inches.

Herons don't have that problem. Somehow, they minimize or reduce all that distortion so that they hunt successfully even in feet of water. This becomes even more impressive when you consider that their prey is moving and actively trying not to be eaten - unlike the sunglasses that you accidentally dropped into the water.

Great blue herons are also captivating to watch when they nest as well. Males collect much of the nest material themselves, gathering sticks and branches and then presenting them to the female. The female takes his offerings and weaves them into a large platform with a bowl-like nest in the middle which she lines with softer moss, leaves, or reeds. This ungainly platform, which can range anywhere from 20 inches to 4 feet across, is built mainly in trees but pairs can also nest on the ground and on top of man-made structures.

Great blue herons also nest in massive colonies and the drama of courting males and frenzied nest building can be amusing to watch (if a bit loud at times).

Working at the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, I've spotted a great blue heron several times, winging its way down the bayou.

I'm always struck by how big these birds are and by how noiselessly they move. And even though these are common birds here in Texas, there's something beautiful about the sight of one ghosting over the water, long S-neck curled back, gray feathers glinting in the sun.

Emma Shelly is the Education and Outreach Manager of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory. The GCBO is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the birds and their habitats along the entire Gulf Coast and beyond into their Central and South America wintering grounds.


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