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Posts Tagged ‘Great Blue Heron’

heron

Great Blue Heron

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heron

One of the pleasures of living beside our little river is that we are often treated to the sight of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) as it hunts for a meal. I never tire of seeing these majestic birds, which can be 1.3 m (over four feet) tall. They are shy birds. If you are just driving by in your car, they stand very still and keep an eye on you as you pass by. But if you should stop and roll down a window, never mind climb out of the car, they rise silently on their great wings and quickly disappear up the river.

Great Blue Herons feed on small fish, amphibians, rodents, aquatic insects, crayfish and snails such as are found in shallow ponds, streams and wetlands. It is thought that their numbers have been slowly declining over the past 20 years and the reasons for this are not well understood. However, it may be that the heron decline is linked to that of one of their favorite foods. The numbers of many amphibians such as frogs have also been falling across the Great Lakes region.

I spotted this heron as I was walking along the road that borders the river. There is a dense hedgerow, and I had to watch for a spot that was clear enough to take a photograph through. The heron was watching me suspiciously. Once I found a little clearing, I only had a few seconds to take the picture before the bird took flight and quickly disappeared from sight.

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heronwindow

As I was getting my morning coffee the other day, I glanced out the kitchen window and was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) looking for his breakfast down by the river. I retrieved my camera and took a couple of shots. Can you see him in my window view, above? It’s not unusual to see a heron by the river, but they are usually seen farther down the stream, away from the house. They like their privacy.

Great Blue Herons in Ontario are generally migratory, flying south alone or in small groups of a dozen birds in the fall. Some seem reluctant to leave. It is nearly November, but as long as there is open water, they can hunt for food. According to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001-2005, heron numbers increased from the late 1940s until about 1990, following the organochlorine pesticide era. Since 1990, however, a gradual decline has been noted. The cause is not well understood, but it may be linked to the decrease in many amphibian species, which are an important component of heron diets.

The heron population in Ontario was estimated at over 17,000 breeding pairs in the early 1990s. It always amazes me how few individuals there are of other species compared to our own. For example, compare that figure of 17,000 pairs to the population of humans in the Greater Toronto Area, about 5.5 million.

Here is a closer shot of the breakfast visitor, below. Safe journey, big bird.

heron

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Some of the returning Canada Geese settle on the little river for a break on the journey north. You can see them along the length of the river where the road parallels its meandering course. Many form flotillas on the water, while others pad about the adjacent farm pastures.

Ducks have begun to arrive too. I saw a pair of Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) a few days ago, but they didn’t stick around to have their picture taken. They are small ducks and the male has a conspicuous white wedge at the back of his dark head, which makes him easy to identify. More common are the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). There are often several pairs to be seen.

The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) are my favorites. Until last spring, I hadn’t seen any in the wild. The males, with their elegant colouring, are certainly amongst the most beautiful of ducks.

None of the ducks seem to stay into the nesting season, but move on to better habitat. I would like to try mounting a Wood Duck nesting box, a project for next year maybe, although I’m not sure their is sufficient appropriate habitat by the river to allow a pair to raise a family there.

It’s nice to see the ducks, but on Monday I saw a real favorite: the first Great Blue Heron (Ardia herodias) of the year! Apparently he wasn’t as happy to see me as I was to see him, and took off before I was able to get more than one ghostly photograph. But that’s okay. Unlike the ducks, the heron is probably here to stay.

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heron3

Once upon a time, when I used to work in an office in downtown Toronto and commute in from our rural home, I saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing in a stream I passed over on my morning drive. When I got to work, I told the young woman who sat beside me that I’d seen a Great Blue Heron. Being a city girl through and through, she asked “What’s a Great Blue Heron?” I described the bird as best I could, a tall bird about 4 feet tall, grey-blue, long, pointy beak…. She didn’t believe me. She thought I was pulling her leg, that there are no such big birds in Ontario. I have to admit, she had grounds for thinking I might be teasing her, but in this case, my story was true. I had to get someone else to corroborate my facts.

heron1

Over the summer, I’ve seen herons regularly. It’s not unusual to spot one in our little river when I cross the bridge on the way to the main road. They’re shy birds. When I stop the car to try for a photo, they often fly away down the river and disappear into the greenery. Herons fly with deep, slow wing-beats, their long necks retracted into an S and their legs trailing out behind them.

heronflying

There’s a bit of a pool by the bridge that attracts fishermen, and I think the herons are drawn to the spot for the same reason. Herons hunt for fish by standing very still in the water, sometimes wading in on their long legs up to their bellies, and waiting for a fish or some other tasty morsel to swim by. Then, with a rapid forward thrust of their bill, they catch their prey.

heron2

Foraging for food in this manner is a solitary pursuit. However, when herons raise a family, they get together in colonies. It seems a bit unlikely, but these large, long-legged birds build nests in the tops of trees, usually near wetlands or water. An average colony has about 35 nests, although some colonies may exceed 150 nests.

heron5nearbridge

Colonies are quite stable, and may exist for up to 50 years, but 9 years is about the average heronry lifespan. A heronry is fairly easy to spot as the nests are large. They are made of interwoven sticks and lined with smaller twigs and leaves. I know of two heron colonies in the area, but both are well back from the road, and its not clear if either or both are still in use.

heronbystlawrence

When I went out for groceries yesterday, I spotted 3 herons. Two were foraging in the waters of a bay along the edge of the St. Lawrence. A third was standing in a small wetland close to the roadside.

heronbyroad

These regular heron sightings give me the impression that the heron population is in good shape, doing fine. This just goes to show how wrong such impressions, based on limited evidence, can be. In fact, the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario 2001-2005, based on extensive surveys of breeding birds, found that heron populations, like those of many birds, are in decline. There was a significant 37% decline province-wide in evidence of breeding from the same survey completed 20 years earlier. The cause of the decline is not understood. A decrease in amphibian species such as the Green Frog (an important dietary item for herons) over the last 10 years might be a contributing factor.

herononbridge

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