A Focused Hunter

A close-up of a Great Blue heron head and bill.
A typical stalking walk, with that long neck stretched out and eyes focused on the ground.
A resting Great Blue Heron, still keeping a lookout for predators.
A  Great Blue heron heading out to the inundation areas to look for drowned or escaping gophers and voles.

As I make my rounds on the mitigation lands observing the birds, elk, and other wildlife, I regularly see an extremely tall and elegant, bluish-grey hunter out in the wet meadows. It is the Great blue heron, Ardea herodias, an extremely focused and beautiful predator. This bird always catches my attention not only because it is so large, reaching a height of 4.5 feet with a wingspan that can be 6.6 feet wide, but also because this bird can be incredibly intense in its pursuit of food. It seems to block out all distractions except for whatever it is hunting at that moment. It is no wonder that when they are perched in a tree or roosting, they stand motionless as though sleeping with their eyes open!

What are they searching for in those grassy fields? In the streams and pond areas it makes sense that they are fishing. Sometimes I get a glimpse of a silver fish being swallowed and get a chance to see the fish bulging down that long neck. Recently I read that they rarely eat a fish too big to get down that length of neck and have been found dead from choking.

Out in the meadows they are hunting an entirely different prey, rodents, like gophers and voles. These animals come up to the surface as the ground water rises and the returning inundation from sufficient rainfall creates small lakes. The rodents become food for many predators from coyotes to Bald eagles. Great Blue herons are fantastic hunters of these escaping rodents. There are Native American stories that talk about this habit. If you have ever seen this happen, a Great Blue catching and eating a Pocket gopher, you will understand why this is lore, a story to be passed down from generation to generation. Swallowing a fish is one thing but getting a round, hairy rodent down that long narrow neck is a feat of acrobatics and peristaltic throat action. I have witnessed it (without my camera) twice and the image of a heron getting that huge bulge down that long neck, doing almost a dance, is in my mind’s eye forever. Herons will also catch frogs, snakes, insects, and baby ducks. There are some YouTube videos that people have posted showing them hunting for all those things.

Here are some other interesting facts about Great Blue herons: It is not uncommon to go to our coast and see one floating out in the ocean on a raft of seaweed. In areas where beavers are coming back, like the northeastern part of the United states, Great Blues are increasing in numbers too, in other words, beavers are good for the herons. They are capable hunters both day and night due to a large percentage of rod-type photoreceptors that help them to see better in the dark. A new piece of information I read about in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website ‘All About Birds,’ is that they “have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.”

I have seen those feathers but did not realize that those feathers were important for their hygiene. Their long necks with special vertebrae allow them to have a long strike distance for hunting. The oldest Great Blue heron recorded was 24 years old.

Next time you are taking a walk along the coast or in a grassy meadow keep a look out for one of the fascinating and elegant Great Blue Herons. They are very entertaining!