The second photo was taken during the last cold snap. I didn’t realize until looking at the photos tonight that you could see his breath. Note the rock he is perched on. For over a month I would find him there sleeping in the morning. In the top photo, the rock has barely any pooh, so funny because after only a month, it’s really sloshing with it.
Great Blue Herons truly are the Jet Blue of the avian world! The following incredible story is shared with us by reader Chris Callahan and comes from the Heron Observation Network of Maine.
Harper Wows Us Again!
Harper, an adult female great blue heron outfitted with a solar-powered GPS unit, has just flown nonstop for 68 hours on her southward migration! She spent the summer in New Brunswick, Canada, and the post-breeding season on Chaleur Bay on the border of QC and NB. At around 7pm on October 8th she left this rich feeding area and flew continuously crossing over Nova Scotia and then out over open ocean. She came within 165 miles of Bermuda but turned westward toward the US mainland. At 3:15pm on October 11th, she finally made landfall on the southern tip of Cumberland Island on the Georgia coast. She has since gradually made her way to the Everglades in Florida. Last year she impressed the world by flying nonstop over open ocean for 38 hours. She nearly doubled that duration this year! We will be watching to see if she returns to last year’s wintering area in Guajaca Uno, Cuba, and will post updates on our Facebook Page. For more information on the tracking project, including how to download the data to explore on your own, visit: https://www1.maine.gov/wordpress/ifwheron/tracking-project/.
Great Blue Heron range map
A note about the photos – for the past five years I have been photographing and filming the Cormorants massing. The photos are from 2016 – 2019, and most recently, from 2020. Some of the earliest ones were taken at Niles Beach in 2017. In 2018, my friend Nina wrote to say that the massing also takes place in her neighborhood on the Annisquam River. Several weeks ago, while hiking on the backside of Sandy Point, facing the Ipswich Yacht Club, the Cormorants were massing there, too. Please write if you have seen this spectacular event taking place in your neighborhood. Thank you so much!
Massing in great numbers as they gather at this time of year, Double Crested Cormorants, along with many species of gulls and herons, are benefitting from the tremendous numbers of minnows that are currently present all around the shores of Cape Ann.
At inlets on the Annisquam and Essex Rivers, as well as the inner Harbor and Brace Cove, you can see great gulps of Cormorants. In unison, they push the minnows to shore, where gulls and herons are hungrily waiting. The fish try to swim back out toward open water but the equally as hungry Cormorants have formed a barrier. From an onlooker’s point of view, it looks like utter mayhem with dramatic splashing, diving, and devouring. In many of the photos, you can see that the birds are indeed catching fish.
The Double-crested Cormorants are driving the feeding frenzy. I have seen this symbiotic feeding with individual pairs of DCCormorants and Snowy Egrets at our waterways during the summer, but only see this extraordinary massing of gulls, herons, and cormorants at this time of year, in late summer and early autumn.
Cormorants catch fish by diving from the surface, chasing their prey under water and seizing it with the hooked bill.
Double-crested Cormorants are ubiquitous. When compared to Great Cormorants, DCCormorants are a true North American species and breed, winter over, and migrate along the shores of Cape Ann.
After feeding, the herons often find a quiet place to preen before heading back in the late afternoon to their overnight roosting grounds.
Double-crested Cormomrant range map
The past week Eastern Point has seen a wonderful influx of wildlife, in addition to the beautiful creatures already wintering over and migrating through.
On Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a great raft of Ring-necked Ducks joined the flock of Buffleheads and Mallards at Niles Pond. Five chunky American Coots have been there for over a week, and two female Ruddy Ducks have been spotted.
Fifteen Harbor Seals were sunning and basking on the rocks at Brace Cove on Wednesday, along with several Bonaparte’s Gulls that were diving and foraging in the waves. The increasingly less timid Lark Sparrow is still here, too.
The most enigmatic of Great Blue Herons criss crosses the pond a dozen times a day but, unlike last year’s fall migrating GBH, who allowed for a closer glimpse, this heron is super people shy. He has been here for about a week and was present again today.
This morning I watched the four beautiful Mute Swans depart over Brace Rock, in a southerly direction. Will they return? Mute Swans migrate from body of water to body of water within a region. Perhaps they will return, or they could possibly have flown to a nearby location–further exploring our Island.
Leaving Niles Pond this morning and flying over Brace Cove.
Contemplating taking flight, the perching juvenile Great Blue Heron moved its feet slowly, while turning to face the shore, then gracefully lifted its wings and departed, with a very loud and un-elegant QWOCK.
No signs of any Great Blue Herons since the big Thanksgiving Day freeze. Two days into the frigid temperatures, the last one observed appeared very unhappy. The unfrozen bits of water were too cold to forage. He seemed so cold, wasn’t fishing at all, and was only standing on the shore, in the glummest manner. I urged him onward, worried his frozen self might look tempting to a coyote, and hope perhaps he departed under the brilliant light of the full November Frost Moon.
Mostly elegant, though sometimes appearing comically Pterodactylus-like, the Great Blue Heron is found in nearly every region of the United States, Mexico, and Central America, as well as the southern provinces of Canada.
Its light weight, a mere five pounds, belies the fact that the Great Blue Heron is North America’s largest heron, with a wingspan of up to six and a half feet and a height of four and a half feet. I write elegant because it truly has a grace unsurpassed when in repose or waiting to strike a fish. Images of Pterodactylus come to mind when you see the bird battling for territory with other herons or flapping about in a tree top; the Heron loses all its sophisticated exquisiteness, transformed into what looks like a great winged beast.
Pterodactylus images courtesy wiki commons media
This summer past was a tremendous year for observing herons and egrets on Cape Ann. Our marshes, ponds, and waterways were rife with Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Green Herons, American Bitterns, and especially Great Blue Herons.
At every location Great Blue Herons were foraging either with a flock of mixed herons and egrets, or in a solitary manner. Great Blue Herons hunt day and night and I would often find them at daybreak. They will stand quietly for hours, repeatedly striking the water with lightning speed, and nearly always resurfacing with a fish or frog. Great Blue Herons are survivalists and their diet is wide ranging, including large and small fish, frogs, insects, small mammals, and even other birds. Because of its highly varied diet, the Great Blue Heron is able to spend winters further north than most other species of herons and egrets. Even when waters freeze, we still see them on our shores well into December.
Fishing – Great Blue Herons capture small fish and amphibians by plunging into water and then swallowing whole the prey. They also use their powerful bills like a dagger to spear larger fish.
Last week we posted a photo of a group of Great Blue Herons, Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets all foraging together on a rainy morning. The Great Blue Herons are so perfectly camouflaged when perched on the rocky shoreline and we asked how many GBH folks could see. Reader Julie W. saw the most and she even sent the photo back with the Great Blues circled. Thank you Julie for taking the time to do that!!
What do Great Blue Herons, North America’s largest species of herons, eat? Because they feed in a variety of both freshwater and saltwater habitats, their diet is richly varied. Great Blue Herons dine on small fish, crabs, shrimp, mice, rats, voles, frogs, salamanders, turtles, gophers, snakes, many species of small waterbirds including ducks and ducklings, and insects.
Oftentimes when I come upon a Great Blue Heron fishing in the marsh at dawn, they appear as though they have been there for some time, as if they are nearly finished feeding for the morning. That’s because they may very well be done. Great Blue Herons have specialized rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes which allows them to hunt both day and night!
Outtakes from films in progress, too pretty to delete. In thinking about music for my forthcoming film I found this beautiful pan flute song “Mochica en la Noche” by Santiago y Sus Flautes de Pan. The evocative music and heron in the vivid rising sun just felt like a perfect pairing.
There are several theories as to why birds, especially large wading birds such as herons and flamingoes, stand on one leg, or “unipedal resting” as scientist like to refer to the trait. The seemingly most convincing and best-proved theory is that birds stand on one leg to conserve body heat. It is shown that birds stand on one leg more often when wading, which again points to the thermoregulation hypothesis because water draws away more body heat.
Standing on one leg is not necessarily a sleeping and resting habit. I have filmed Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets meticulously preening while standing on one leg. The characteristic is not limited to large wading birds; species with shorter legs, including ducks and swans, also stand on one leg. Another popular theory suggests that wading birds stand on one leg to look less suspicious to aquatic prey.
To read more about avian sensory physiology, visit the website of Professor Dr. Reinhold Necker. Additional images courtesy Professor Necker’s website.
Oftentimes I see herons, gulls, and crows fishing peaceably together at daybreak. Not this morning! The heron vigorously defends its territory, while the crow has a reputation for stealing what others catch, and both are very hungry. Look for the heron eating an eel at about @1 minute 40 seconds.
No borrowed music in this mini film; the sound of crickets, shorebirds, surf, and train whistle make a song of their own, and I really wanted the heron’s loud quarking heard. Creating these mini films helps to organize B-roll for my Monarch film and the next daybreak video is the foggy morning sunrise with the whimbrels.