A solitary Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing at the edge of a shallow creek in the stillness of the morning is a powerful sight. I am reminded of my fondness for them as I watch, partly because I had only seen pictures of these magnificent birds and now I have them twenty yards from my patio and partly because I enjoy the folklore associated with them. Mostly it is because they are just impressive. Watching them continues to be an exciting and awesome experience.
A patient hunter, the wading heron stands perfectly still – waiting. He will dine on small rodents and birds, frogs, fish, and I suspect I do not have snakes in my yard thanks to him.
They are common year-round in Brunswick County along the Intracoastal Waterway and in marshes, but are most prevalent fall through spring, so now is a good time to spot one. Seeing a heron on the beach in the early morning or evening is a possibility also.
Great Blue Herons appear blue-gray all over but have a “white head, blue-gray back and wings, yellow dagger bill, and long yellow legs” according to An Instant Guide to Freshwater Birds by Mike Lambert and Alan Pearson. The males and females look alike. They are graceful large birds with a neck about as long as it’s legs. Often mistaken for a crane, herons can be distinguished by the way they hold their neck. Herons extend their necks for taking flight and landing but fly with their necks folded back like an ‘S’, while cranes fly with their necks extended.
These long-legged waders nest in colonies in tall trees near or over the water (fresh or salt) beginning the activities in March. It is not unusual for four nests to be in one tree. Both adults construct the nest, which is a platform of sticks. Four greenish-blue eggs are laid normally and it takes about 28 days for them to hatch. Both parents also share in the incubation of the eggs and feeding of the young.
The featherless downy young open their eyes at hatching. Pinfeathers begin to come in when the hatchlings are ten to twenty days old. Scientists are uncertain when young waders leave the nest to follow their parents on the first flight to feed but it is presumed to be when they are six to eight weeks old. Usually one brood is raised each year. Interestingly, herons develop specialized feathers on the breast, rump, and flanks called powder-down. These feathers fray and the powder is used to soak up oil, grease, and dirt off the other feathers. After they clean themselves, the plumage is waterproofed with oil from its preen gland.
The Great Blue Heron has many legends and symbols associated with it. One, being the appearance of a heron is supposed to be a good ‘sign’. The heron’s habit of standing on one leg symbolizes contemplation, vigilance, divine wisdom, and inner quietness. From medieval times to early Christians; from Greece, Israel, and Japan to Native American legends the heron represents something different to everyone. The folklore is part of what endears this bird to so many people in so many places.
This article was originally published in The Brunswick Beacon. Reprinted here with permission.