Burchfield: Herons are becoming more visible

A Great Blue Heron at rest.

Wildlife populations are booming. That’s the way it should be come this time of year. But it didn’t happen overnight. After all, during the second month of the year, sow black bears were giving birth. Also the eggs of great horned owls were being hatched within that same timeframe. Not all species of wildlife give birth at the same time, as nature is not designed that way.

For some time, birds that migrated south from their overwintering grounds have returned. Upon their arrival their focus has been on nesting.

My wife and I enjoy walking a pathway overlooking a flood control project. The area attracts a wide variety of wildlife including: Canada Geese and several species of ducks. Groundhogs, deer, red fox, and turtles are just a few found there. Each specie provides its own level of excitement, and topping the list are the Great Blue Herons.

The species of herons who make their home in PA includes: the green heron, great egret, black-crowned night heron, yellow-crowned night heron, least bittern, and the American bittern, along with the Great Blue Heron. Also there are a number of the heron family that will occasionally be observed as they migrate through the state. Other species may be seen on a limited basis.

Of all the birds observed along the pathway, the Great Blue herons are the most impressive. Large by design, 38 inches long with a 70-inch wingspan, these birds are impressive in flight.

On the ground Great Blues are supported by a long set of legs with toes that are flexible making them ideal for wading in water and walking on wet areas.

The bird’s heavy bill is long and tapers down to a sharp point with the bird’s white head exhibiting a black feathery crest supported from its main body by a long slender neck. The beak is sharp but is used to catch rather than to impale.

The bird’s coloration of hues of dark gray blending to a blueish gray provides the birds with a “soft” overall appearance.

Within less than a mile from the pathway we walk is an established heron rookery. There amongst tall trees, herons construct a number of individual nests. Nests are comprised of large sticks, smaller branches, and lined with leaves, with an outside diameter of 25 to 40 inches. The female will lay three to six eggs with an average of four eggs. Both the female and male share the incubation process that takes 28 days to complete.

The stream and the nearby ponds and wetlands provide fertile grounds when the Great Blue Herons can locate food.

Heron are patient hunters and wade the water of streams and wet areas, then they stop and wait motionless for a meal to come within striking distance.

To capture various targets, the bird’s strong, long neck accelerates thrusting the bird’s entire head into the water to seize its prey. Observing these birds in action is an impressive sight to see.

The preferred menu of Great Blues includes: fish, snakes, frogs, crayfish, mice, and shrews, which are swallowed whole. They feed their young by regurgitating pre-digested liquid food to their young. In time the young are presented partly digested food. Soon thereafter whole food is presented to the young.

While observing Great Blue’s in pursuit of a meal, more often than not we will not witness a score. Yet success for my wife and I are gauged in other ways.

As we walk parallel to the stream, on numerous occasions we watch one of these magnificent birds fly up or down stream surveying the water below. This alone puts a smile on our faces. Even more impressive is watching one of these big birds as it drops from the sky cupping its huge wings to reduce forward velocity then setting gently on the ground.

Great Blue Herons are predators, however there are times when they become the prey. Foxes, minks, hawks, and raccoons will feast on a meal of Heron. Snakes will also consume unattended eggs in a Heron’s nest.

Just the sight of a Great Blue Herons crossing the sky is always worth a second look.

Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net