Great Blue Heron

One of the Great Fishers of the Bird Kingdom


Imagine standing six inches deep in water on the edge of a slow moving creek. You don’t move a muscle as you look in the water waiting for a fish to swim by. After a couple minutes of not seeing any fish, you begin to slowly wade through the water. Slow enough to not even ripple the water. You pull a long skinny leg out of the water to take a step. As you begin to lift your other leg, a seven-inch bluegill comes into sight from the right. It’s slowly moving closer to you and you don’t move an inch. The fish swims away but you have the upper hand. You know the bluegill will come back. You need to be patient - very patient. After a couple seconds, very slowly it returns, picking at things at the bottom of the creek. You can’t act too quickly because you don’t want to scare it. It swims away again. This is how you hunt. You stay very patient until you find the opportune moment to strike. 
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You have the chance to put your other leg down now that the fish is away. You slowly and gently put your leg into the water, again not even rippling it. As you place it on the rocky bed of the creek, the bluegill comes back and begins picking at algae from the rocks. You let it move around your legs, waiting calmly as it comes to a stop right in front of your two feet. You wait another minute to be sure it won’t swim away again and then you strike! You plunge your large sharp beak straight into the bluegill and pull it out of the water. It takes a couple jabs for the fish to stop wiggling. Finally, you’re able to swallow it whole and hope that it will fit down your neck! That’s what it would be like if you were a Great Blue Heron hunting a fish.
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Great Blue Herons also eat frogs, salamanders, snakes and even rodents! They eat many other smaller animals, but fish tend to be their main source of food. As said before, they use their very long sharp beaks to stab at the fish, or other animal, to catch it than eat it. Herons eat their prey whole. Generally a solitary feeder, Great Blue Herons typically eat during dusk and dawn but have been seen dining at all hours.

Great Blue Herons breeding patterns are different from their normal solitary lives, as shown at right of a specific pair seen on the Chester Valley Trail. They breed in colonies that can be from a few pairs to hundreds of pairs nesting in one area. Their nests are very high up in trees close to some body of water like a lake or marsh. They tend to reuse nests from year to year if they are still available. If not, they will make a new nest or use an old nest for their mating displays. The Great Blue Herons have a different mate each year. 

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Noticeable characteristics of the Great Blue Heron include their winding neck with long gray feathers. The extended skinny neck has proven to be a problem. On occasion, a bigger fish has caused herons to choke before realizing they can’t swallow the fish whole. Another distinguishing characteristic is their slate or gray and blue colored flight feathers. Their head is almost white with dark plumes that go from the eyes to the back of the head. The rest of their bodies are dark gray to a light gray. The heron’s long skinny legs are perfect for wading slowly and unnoticed in shallow water. The most distinguishing characteristic is their long sharp beak. 

Imagine again, after you stick the bluegill with your sharp beak a couple times and swallow it whole, you’re ready to move onto another spot. You extend your wings to their full length of five feet and jump into the air. You pull your neck in just a little bit and start pushing your wings up and down to gain some height. Finally, you begin soaring through the air with your full belly of fish!

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Here are a couple upcoming programs where you may have a chance to see a Great Blue Heron!

  • Silt Basin Kayak Tour- Sunday July 16th, 2-5 pm at Sanatoga Silt Basin 
  • Sunset Paddling Tour- Wednesday July 19th, 7:30-9 pm at Chambers Lake (201 Wagontown Road, Coatesville)
  • Hibernia Sunset Hike- Saturday July 29th, 7:30 – 9 pm at Hibernia County Park Office