An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Wading Birds

Lingering Great Blue Herons

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Most fish-eating birds that breed where most bodies of water freeze over in the winter migrate further south in the fall, including Great Blue Herons.  Movement of this large wading bird takes place largely from September to mid-October. According to Christmas Bird Count data, the Great Blue Heron has the widest wintering distribution of any heron species in North America.

While the number of Great Blue Herons in the Northeast is greatly diminished in November and December, it’s not uncommon to spot lingering birds at this time of year.  Come January, when most bodies of fresh water are inaccessible to herons, sightings become rare until they begin returning in March.

Where open water remains in the Northeast, those Great Blue Herons braving the cold continue to consume fish, insects, amphibians and crustaceans.  Small mammals, especially voles, and birds remain a warm-month delicacy, when mammal hair is cast in pellets and bones are digested.

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Silver Lining to Low Water Levels

9-27-great-blue-heron-20160911_7746The low water level of most small ponds and streams this fall has at least one silver lining, and that is that consumers of fish and other aquatic creatures expend far less energy finding prey, for it is all concentrated in much smaller bodies of water. The few puddles of water in small streams contain a vast amount of life, as do small ponds.

The Great Blue Heron has the advantage of having a varied diet that is found in a variety of habitats, so it forages in grasslands, marshes, intertidal beaches, riverbanks and ponds. While amphibians, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, and birds are all known to have been eaten by Great Blue Herons, fish are their mainstay. They often forage in ponds, where they typically wade or stand in wait of prey in shallow water, which has not been in short supply this summer and fall. While the low water level is wreaking havoc with beavers and muskrats, it provides bountiful fuel for herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds that forage in small ponds and streams as they wend their way southward.

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Green Herons Migrating

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Green Herons (Butorides virescens) are small, crested, wading birds that inhabit wetland thickets throughout most of North America. After breeding, most tend to wander to more favorable foraging areas before migrating south to Florida, Central and South America. Migration begins in late August/early September and by mid-October, most Green Herons have departed.

Green Herons are among the few species of birds that use tools in order to lure fish to within their striking distance. Bread, mayflies, twigs, leaves, berries, earthworms and feathers are among the lures they have been observed dropping into the water as bait. To watch a video of a persistent and successful Green Heron fishing with a lure, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk .

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Great Blue Herons Cooling Off

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Birds have a number of ways of keeping cool. They don’t sweat, nor do they pant, but birds do have several behavioral adaptations which reduce their temperature. Often nestlings that are exposed to the relentless heat of the sun for long periods of time, such as platform-nesting raptors and herons, resort to what is called gular fluttering. They open their beaks and “flutter” their neck muscles, promoting heat loss – an avian version of panting.

Another avian strategy for cooling off is demonstrated by this adult Great Blue Heron — that of arranging its wings in a certain position in order to reduce its body heat.  Great Blue Herons droop their wings while standing, which allows air to circulate across their body and sweep away the excess heat.

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Great Egrets Dispersing

great egret flyingAlthough Great Egrets breed sporadically as far north as Vermont, seeing one in northern New England is always noteworthy. The likelihood of a sighting increases as summer progresses, due in large part to the phenomenon of post-breeding dispersal. After young Great Egrets have fledged, individuals wander well outside their typical breeding range, as far north as southern Canada. The northward dispersal of juvenile birds peaks in August and September. Most Great Egrets migrate in the fall, from September through December.The extent of their migration is influenced by annual fluctuations in temperature. When winters are mild, individuals may remain as far north along the Atlantic Coast as Massachusetts.

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Juvenile Green Herons Becoming Independent

8-4-15 juv. green heron IMG_5807Green herons are typically solitary and secretive birds, but if you find one, you often have an extended period of time to observe it, as they often slowly stalk their prey, or pose statue-like, sometimes for minutes at a time, while waiting to strike at a fish, frog or invertebrate. Three characteristics tell you that the green heron in this photograph is a juvenile: the few tufts of down that remain on its head, its streaked neck (adults have solid rufous necks) and its yellow legs (adults have orange legs).

After fledging when about three weeks old, they can soon fly. The juvenile fledglings continue to be fed by the adults for a period of time and are taught how to forage for fish. Green herons are one of very few bird species that are known to occasionally use a tool (insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers) to catch their food – they simply drop the lure and wait for small fish to appear. (A wonderful video of a green heron successfully using bread for this purpose can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Porp5v5lLKk.)

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Great Blue Herons Mating

4-22-13 great blue herons copulating2  IMG_8954Numerous displays lead up to the mating of great blue herons – neck stretching, bill clacking, wing preening, circling flights, twig shaking, crest raising, neck fluffing, to name but a few. After this elaborate courtship comes copulation, which is not nearly as showy. Copulation typically takes place on the nest. The male places one foot gently in the center of the female’s back. The female leans forward, bends her ankles and holds her wings slightly away from her sides while the male lowers himself, often flapping his wings. Once the job is done, the male flies off. If you look closely you can perhaps make out that the male is grasping the female’s head/neck while copulation takes place.