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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The great blue heron

As I write this article it is late January, but going outside you might assume it was March. The rain is falling, the snow has mostly disappeared, and I have thoughts of starting my garden. Where did the winter go? Hopefully old man winter will return in February, because I look forward to the cold and ice every year. Why, might you ask? Why would I welcome sub-zero temperatures, the bitter cold wind, and the ever present risk of a sudden and painful slip on the ice? Because I love the special seasonal gifts winter brings to our neck of the woods: skiing, ice skating and, best of all, ice fishing. And it is the last item that brings us to our bird of the month, the Great Blue Heron. What does the Great Blue Heron have to do with ice fishing? Read below to find out.

In our area the Great Blue Heron is a year-round resident. They are easy birds to identify, even for the non-birder. As their name suggests, they are large birds. They typically stand about four feet in height and are blue. Well, mostly blue. And they are unlikely to be confused with any other bird. At least not around here. They have some cousins elsewhere in the country that might rival them in size or color, but typically these kin are only visitors. The one exception is the Great Egret, which from a distance might seem to match the Great Blue Heron for size, but is pure white in plumage. It sometimes ranges here, though I haven’t seen them, except in my travels along the Pacific Coast and the Midwest.

Field marks for this largest North American heron are distinctive and easy to remember. As stated above, the dominant color for these birds is blue, though a light slate-blue to gray might be just as common. The face and head are typically white and will be set off by large, black jaunty plumes on each side of the head, reaching backward from the temple area. Sometimes these plumes are so long that they will arc down to the middle of the neck. On some individuals the plume is missing or less developed, making the bird look like it might be wearing a black cap.

The bird also has a notable S-curve to its neck, which increases and decreases in severity and length as the bird shortens or elongates its neck. A bird at rest often nestles its head down onto its shoulders, completely hiding its neck in a ruff of breast feathers. In the winter, I often see such birds  standing on one leg, the other pulled up tight against the body. The neck coloration can range from rusty red to light blue to off-white, or combinations thereof.

The Great Blue Heron has a large, yellow bill and it knows how to use it! You will often spot this bird wading through deep pools of water, stalking fish or any other thing that moves. It is not a picky eater. Fish, turtles, snakes, frogs—anything is fair game. Or you might glimpse it striding open fields on its long pale legs, hunting for mice or whatever else it can scare up. This might explain why the Great Blue Heron has such a broad distribution, from Alaska to Nova Scotia to Central America—it can exploit a variety of habitats.

Flushing a Great Blue Heron from its haunts is always memorable. The bird will vocalize a deep croak that is unlike anything else. It flies with its neck curled tight against its body and its legs trailing behind, with its deep blue primaries flapping rhythmically—not too fast, not too slow. A Great Blue Heron suggests to me what a pterodactyl might look like in flight.

So what does a Great Blue Heron have to do with ice fishing? Well, sometimes when I go out ice fishing I find a Great Blue Heron taking a deep interest in my activity. He (or she) will stand perfectly still and watch me as I sit and fish. But as soon as I pull a fish out of the water, the bird will extend its neck and take a hopeful step or two towards me. It is as if the bird is telling me “if that fish is too small to keep, instead of tossing it back perhaps you might like to share it with me!” And so I do. I will toss the bird the fish, which he deftly picks off of the ice and with a toss in the air, catches and swallows it head first. As soon as the action ends, he returns to his one-legged observation, his head again hunkered down between his shoulders, watching... waiting. These are very patient birds!

Great Blue Herons make our area an even more special place, any time of the year. Keep an eye out. They are everywhere. And trust me, they are watching you. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, Heron, outdoors, Great Blue Heron, blue heron

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