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The Good Old Great Blue Heron

A great blue heron catches a fish in turbulent water next to the Batavia (Il.) dam
A great blue heron catches a fish in turbulent water next to the Batavia (Il.) dam
Christopher Cudworth

There is an unspoken rule among serious nature photographers that you do not take images of certain species because they are just too easy. One of the most photographed species of birds is surely the Great Blue Heron because it is so easily found, generally approachable and unlike most avian species, is prone to sitting still for long periods of time.

That does not mean great photographers cannot still capture compelling images of Great Blue Herons. But taking pix of Great Blues does not measure up to capturing images of peregrine falcons in flight, or kingfishers crashing the water surface to snag a fish.

Yet we all seem to love the Great Blue Heron for all its commonality. Even if photographers ultimately find them boring, they are an interesting species nonetheless.

Last spring while enrolled in a naturalist certificate program with the Kane County Forest Preserve District, our class visited Maple Grove woods near Route 47 south of Elburn. Entering the woods the audible croaks of nesting Great Blue Herons could be heard. The heron rookery, one of many now located in the Chicago area, was built in the tops of dead trees deep in the forest near a cleared prairie. Rich vernal wetlands glimmered beneath the tall trees, and a flock of 25 wood ducks took flight as the class moved quietly through the woods.

Herons make a comeback

There was a time 30 years ago when heron rookeries were a carefully kept secret because Great Blue Herons were relatively rare in northern Illinois. Memories of when poachers and market hunters decimated heron and egret rookeries for plumes made birders suspicious of anyone with interest in the birds outside the birding community.

But as wetland habitat was restored and water quality improved, Great Blue Herons, Common Egrets, Black-crowned Night Herons and Double-Crested Cormorants made a comeback. One of the best and original sites for breeding wading birds was the property now known as Renwick Lake near Plainfield. Manmade platforms now host breeding colonies there.

Great Blues have spread out their nesting sites to locations at Fermi Lab and many other locations. The former large rookery visible off I-90 at Arlington Heights Road has diminished in recent years, but the large, scraggly nests still occupy tall thin deadwood, make the woods appear like a testament to a Dr. Seuss book.

Setting up a scope to have a look at nesting herons is like dialing into a world you cannot otherwise imagine. The herons manage one-point landings in their stick nests even in high winds. One cannot tell male from female birds in flight, but the shaggy breeding plumage of adult males is a beautiful, intricate sight when seen up close.

That looks like a great blue!

Great Blue Herons get their name from the armor-like coating of blue-gray feathers on their backs. The neck feathers are a warm ochre-gray, quite strikingly gold in some twilight settings. The shoulders of the birds bear deep blackish feathers, often seen as a dark patch when the birds are hunched up and resting. A rich array of thin white feathers juts out from the breast of the birds, while the upper legs bear a rich coating of rust colored feathers that are often not visible but really a nice contrast to the otherwise blue, gray, black and white plumage.

It's all about the craw

Great Blue Herons have large yellow beaks that cut quite deeply into the face below the eye. These beaks can open wide, exposing a craw capable of downing gargantuan fish. Watching a Great Blue down a 12" carp in one gulp is quite a sight. They spear the fish with their sharp bills, toss it up to orient the head toward their throats and give a couple tossing gulps to start the fish on the way to digestible oblivion. Heron poop as a result of all this fish-eating can be quite pungent, especially when large gatherings of the adults and young let loose in the rookery building up a nice concoction of heron guano baked by a mid-summer sun.

Great Blue Herons like to feed in still rivers and ponds where they can catch and eat a variety of fish, frogs and large insects. That's what they're doing looking all perfect and such standing still in the dark edges of a grass-shrouded stream. They really aren't posing for your camera even though it seems like they are transfixed by your lens. Instead they are using the highly adapted positioned of their eyes (see slide show) to peer into the water for prey.

Herons and egrets are all capable of lightning fast stabs to spear passing fish. At times they hold positions for nearly a minute to avoid scaring away their prey. Then, Bam! Once in a great while they miss and move on. But not all that often it seems.

An evolutionary wonder

Watching a heron hunt is to realize how well evolution prepares such species for the niche they occupy. The long legs. The waterproof plumage maintained by long preening sessions. The bright, large eyes set on each side of the head, yet low enough to allow the bird to look down into the water with a razor sharp gaze. All these adaptations make herons a fascinating species, even if "real" photographers do shun them.

In the Chicago area, there are several species of egrets, herons and cranes, whose names are often thrown about interchangeably by the general news media and even those with a casual interest in birds.

Other species of herons

Heron species include the Great Blue and Green-backed heron, a smallish species fond of deep willow thickets and backwoods swamps. Black-crowned night herons are nocturnal hunters that fly croaking into the twilight stream edge to catch small fish in the shallow. The white breast, pale gray back and black "cap" or offset by a deep red eye. Night herons perch in deep shade during the day and nest in rookeries with other herons.

Yellow-crowned night herons are much less common in the Chicago region, yet some do breed here. They are a more southern species of heron, a daylight feeder in duckweed choked marshes and swamps, and strikingly colored with a gray and black body, black face and yellow tufts on the head that give the bird its name.

Differences between a heron and a crane

Occasionally people will mistake Sandhill Cranes for Great Blue Herons. Both are tall birds, nearly 4 feet in height, and both are known to stand with upraised necks, making it hard to distinguish the two species from a distance. Yet cranes have a red forehead when seen in good light, and the overall continuous gray or rust-colored plumage of a sandhill crane contrasts with the relatively calico pattern of the Great Blue Heron.

In flight cranes extend their necks fully while herons tuck their necks into a tight "S". That is the primary field mark of the two birds in flight.

You need not feel bad in photographing either species in the wild. You can never tell what interesting things birds will do, especially herons or cranes. They are always worth a moment of your attention.

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