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Make it a Point to See a Great Blue Heron this Year

Jan 2, 2019
by Lisa Hug

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Happy New Year!  May your year be full of wonderful bird sightings!

I think that spotting a Great Blue Heron would be a nice way to start off the New Year. It is such a gorgeous, graceful bird, with soft gray-blue feathering and long legs and an unbelievably long and slender neck. Its bill looks formidably long and sharp.

Great Blue Herons stand around four feet tall.  But, even though they are nearly as tall as an adult person, they only weigh between five and six pounds (the weight of a small newborn baby).

Of course, Great Blue Herons are very slender and mostly made of legs and neck. But these birds also have “hollow” bones. Actually, their bones are not really hollow, but have many narrow cross-struts all throughout, providing the bones with structural integrity. In contrast, human bones are filled with marrow that produces our blood cells.

Great Blue Herons spend most of their time in marshes. They hunt for fish, crayfish, frogs, toads, snakes and even small mammals. They can occasionally be seen in meadows and farm fields hunting gophers. They swallow their food whole, which is hard to believe, given the size of some of their prey.

I once watched a Great Blue Heron eat a garter snake. It picked it up, wrapped it into a ball, and then somehow swallowed it whole. I could see a large, round bulge slowly travel down the heron’s neck as it swallowed the snake.

These large herons nest in colonies called heronries. A heronry is usually found in a large tree. It may be just a single nest or contain several dozen nests.

An easily observable heronry is located at Bodega Bay, in the Eucalyptus Trees behind the Spud Point Crab Company Restaurant.

The birds start to arrive in this heronry around mid-February. Both males and females contribute to constructing their large stick nests.

A Blue Heron at Steelhead Beach.

The males will bring sticks into the females. She inspects the sticks, then carefully places these sticks into the nest structure. Males and females take turns incubating the eggs; occasionally rolling them over to distribute the heat evenly.

The chicks start to appear in the nests around mid to late April. By May, these chicks can be quite large and noisy. It is fun to watch the parents come in with food for the young. By late July, most young will have left the nests.

Great Blue Herons are very patient hunters.  They will wait in perfect stillness until their prey eventually approaches them. They have very large eyes, and are equally as comfortable hunting at night as they are in the daytime.

Here is another odd fact about Great Blue Herons. They have specialized chest feathers called powder down feathers. These feathers grow continuously but disintegrate at the tips into a powder-like talc. The heron distributes this powder throughout its plumage to help with waterproofing and to remove oils from fish and other sources.

Perhaps the strangest thing to witness here in Northern California is a Great Blue Heron seemingly standing on water in the ocean. Often these herons will stand on floating sea kelp and patiently hunt for fish and invertebrates that may emerge from beneath the kelp.

Great Blue Herons can be found in any wetland.  Good places to look for these majestic birds are at Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility in Petaluma, or Bodega Bay, or in The Laguna de Santa Rosa Wetlands. These birds will always have a special place in our hearts here is Sonoma County.

They are the official bird mascot of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation. And the Laguna de Santa Rosa sits in the heart of Sonoma County.

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