The magnificent great blue heron

By Jeanne Church

The great blue heron is the largest and most common heron in North America. It stands 4 1/2 feet tall and has an amazingly impressive wingspan of nearly 7 feet! Despite its large size, the great blue heron weighs only about 5 pounds.

Until a few years ago, I had never even seen one of these magnificent birds.

In late February of 2017, my husband and I took our first trip to Florida for an extended winter vacation. The previous Christmas, he had given me my first “real” camera as a gift. It allowed me to take close-ups of birds and to get much better results than I had ever imagined! I was hooked!

It was on this trip to Florida that I saw my first great blue heron! I returned to Michigan thinking these were just Florida birds – until I saw one here in Kalamazoo! Now, I see great blue herons everywhere; mostly because I’ve learned where to find them and also because I have a much bigger telephoto lens than I did in 2017!

You can find great blue herons in both saltwater and freshwater habitats, along the edges of marshes, riverbanks and lakes as well as backyard goldfish ponds! They are not always easy to spot, however.

In spite of their large stature, great blue herons become almost invisible as they stand motionless against a backdrop of bushes, trees, and rocks, waiting patiently to catch their next unsuspecting fish, crayfish or frog. These are the heron’s favorite foods, but they will eat almost anything, including snakes, salamanders, insects, small mammals and birds. Their ability to catch small mammals and birds explains why great blue herons can survive here in Michigan even in the dead of winter!

A few years ago, on a cold January day, while I was traipsing through a foot or two of snow looking for small winter birds to photograph, I was shocked to find a great blue heron standing knee deep in snow on a frozen creek less than 50 feet in front of me! I didn’t know that great blues were even capable of staying here throughout the winter! What could they possibly eat if the ponds and creeks were frozen? That’s when I learned that great blue herons could also catch mice, voles and birds!

If you’re interested in an easy way to observe great blue herons, go to the Kensington Metropark Nature Center in Milford, Michigan this spring. By the end of March, great blue herons will start coming back to Michigan and, by early April, they will be exhibiting their usual courtship behaviors and nest-building activities. As you stand on the boardwalk at Kensington Nature Center looking out on Wildwing Lake, you will see a small island with dozens of trees teeming with great blue herons as they build their nests in the treetops and get ready to lay eggs. This kind of communal nesting site is called a ‘heronry’.

By the beginning of May, the eggs will start to hatch and, for the next three or four weeks, one parent or the other will remain with their hatchlings while the other parent goes in search of food. By June, the young birds will be strong enough to fly short distances and, within a very short period of time, will leave the nest for good.

Kensington Metropark Nature Center is well worth the two-hour drive; not just for the great blue herons in the spring, but for all the little songbirds throughout the year who are so acclimated to people, that they will eat right out of your hand – if you remember to bring a little bit of birdseed with you!

Enjoy your visit!

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