Plants & Animals
Many anglers, including these yellow-legged waders, enjoy spending summer in Missouri testing their artificial lures.
Late summer always brings a burst of activity to our pond as green herons make the transition from needy nestlings to feathered foragers of salamanders, tadpoles, and frogs. Although the pond, now fishless after decades of eutrophication, offers easy pickings of the aforementioned prey, foraging space is limited to about 1/3 acre. The ensuing drama is irresistible to watch and photograph as the squawky young herons compete for the best vantage points from which to seize unsuspecting amphibians from the water.
The green heron (Butorides virescens) is a small, stocky wading bird with yellow legs, a long, two-toned bill, and a glossy, blue-green cap. Its plumage is mostly dark green but its breast and neck are chestnut with contrasting streaks of white. Whenever I see a green heron twisting its head and neck to the side, I’m reminded of old-fashion taffy candy as the ribbons of white swirl through the brownish-red plumage.
Watching a green heron fish is mesmerizing but it requires patience as an individual might stare into the water, perfectly motionless, for five minutes or more. Finally, after you think it will never strike, it begins to extend its retractable neck to an impossible length before it jabs the water and retrieves its prey. Green herons are also known to use bait, if necessary, to catch prey. I recently watched a video of a green heron dropping scraps of bread in a lake to lure carp close enough to snatch from the water. These avian anglers are even equipped to fish in waters requiring “artificial baits only” as they have been observed using feathers or other objects to lure fish.
Green herons build a nest of sticks in a tree or shrub near water and produce a clutch of two to six eggs. I try to stay clear of my pond each spring as a new pair sets up household in a cedar tree near water’s edge. They make it clear that I am not welcome as they take flight and jump from tree to tree, sending out their loud “kuk-kuk-kuk” at my approach. Once the nestlings fledge, the parents are less concerned with my presence and the young birds appear more preoccupied with each other than me. I enjoy watching the constant exchange of fishing spots among the siblings as an inevitable pecking order develops. I feel sorry for the more submissive birds as they scan the sky for bullies as much as they monitor the water for prey.
As the days grow shorter and cooler, the green heron sightings at our pond decrease. First, the young birds begin to expand their range to the nearby Bourbuese River and eventually all of them disappear for southern wintering grounds. I’m always a little sad to see them go but I take comfort in knowing that a new pair of the squawky visitors will return the following spring to begin the process anew.
—Story and photos by Danny Brown
We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.