If you have seen a congregation of white herons at Niles Pond, chances are they were not Snowy Egrets or Great White Egrets, but Little Blue Herons.
During the summer of 2022, we had an extraordinary wildlife event unfolding at Niles Pond. In an average year we only see a handful, if any, Little Blue Herons at Niles. Amazingly, on any given evening in August of this year, I counted at a minimum two dozen; one especially astonishing evening’s count totaled more than 65!
Little Blue Herons are an average-sized wading bird, smaller than Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets but larger than Little Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons.
Little Blues in their first hatch summer are often confused with Snowy Egrets because they are similar in size and color. A Little Blue Heron, despite its name, is mostly pure white its first hatch summer (the wings are tipped in slate gray). Their bills are pale greyish blue at the base and black at the tip, with yellowy-green legs.By its third summer, Little Blue adults have attained the two-toned rich moody blue body plumage and violet head and neck feathers.
It’s the Little Blue’s second hatch year, in-between juvenile and adult, when it shows a lovely bi-color, calico pattern that is the most enchanting. The feather patterning is wonderfully varied as the bird is losing its white feathers and gaining its blue and violet feathers. The patterning is so interesting, on one of our many visits to check on the herons, Charlotte dubbed the Niles Pond calico, La Luna.
Little Blue Heron adult and first hatch summer juvenile
The Little Blue Herons have begun to disperse and I have not seen Luna in over a week. They will begin migrating soon. I am so inspired by the presence of Luna and her relations at Niles Pond I am creating a short film about New England pond ecology, starring Luna!
Food for thought – Because of the drought, the water level at Niles has been lower than usual. The lower water level however apparently did not effect the American Bull frog population and that is what the Little Blues have been feasting on all summer. By feasting, I literally mean feasting. In our region, Little Blue Herons are “frog specialists.” During the first light of day, I witnessed a Little Blue Heron catch four American Bullfrogs, either an adult, froglet, or tadpole. They hunt all day long, from sunrise until sunset. If at a bare minimum, a typical LBH ate 20 frogs a day times 60 herons that is a minimum 1200 frogs eaten daily over the course of the summer.
Here in New England, we are at the northern edge of the Little Blue Heron’s breeding range. Perhaps with global climate change the range will expand more northward, although Little Blue Herons are a species in decline due to loss of wetland habitat.
Compare white Little Blue Heron first hatch summer to the Snowy Egret, with bright yellow feet and black legs and bill to the Great White Egret with the reverse markings, a bright yellow bill with black feet and legs.