Great Blue Herons
Leggy predators in local landscapes
by Bob & Jorja Feldman
From the April, 2020 issue
You have not seen our weedy river, you do not know the significance of its weedy bars, until you have seen the blue heron wading and pluming itself on it. I see that it was made for these shallows, and they for it. Now the heron is gone from the weedy shoal, the scene appears incomplete. ...
--Henry David Thoreau
Like Thoreau's river, Willow Pond, near the main parking lot at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, seems incomplete when the great blue heron who frequents it is absent. The stretch of the Huron River between Wagner Rd. and Foster Bridge is also diminished without a great blue.
City ornithologist Juliet Berger also suggests looking for these big birds at Gallup Park and the South Pond Nature Area. Other occasional or regular appearances may occur along creeks and streams, shallow and slow-moving parts of rivers, and in ponds, marshes, and wetlands. They even frequent the small detention pond along Valley Circle Dr. west of Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. when the depth is right for wading.
While some great blues migrate, going to Florida or Mexico, or even a little farther south, not all do so. According to Berger, some will stay here as long as they can find open water.
We usually observe them catching and eating fish (and an occasional frog), but they are opportunistic and may eat crayfish, small mammals, lizards, snakes, and even small birds, among other prey. Berger says that after dining, great blues, like owls, spit out pellets of indigestible fur and feathers. Fish bones, she notes, are apparently not a problem for them.
Usually when we see a great blue, we see only one. But in breeding season, they gather in rookeries--some shared with other species and others, such as the one at Kensington Metropark, devoted solely or almost solely to great blues.
Mating and nest building activity at the Kensington rookery should be picking up right around now. If you go, consider bringing binoculars. Our image of
a stick-carrying great blue touching down at the rookery was taken with a telephoto lens. Hunters once pursued great blues for their splendid breeding plumage, but their numbers recovered under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Aside from visiting rookeries, it is entertaining to watch a great blue's activity in the water--if you have the patience. The bird may stand still or slowly wade for a long time before striking. But when it does, it's dramatic. When stalking prey, its neck is typically coiled in an S curve that makes it look deceptively short. However, the neck quickly becomes weaponized, turning into a long spear when the bird uncoils to snatch a fish or frog that may have thought itself out of reach.
The great blue is the largest North American heron with a wingspan that can go over six feet and a height that can top four feet. Given its size and conspicuousness, it is not remarkable that the great blue heron was the first wading bird that we ever paid serious attention to. We hope others share Thoreau's--and our own--enthusiasm for this fiercely beautiful bird.
[Originally published in April, 2020.]
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