The Great Blue heron (Ardea Herodias) approached from a distance, descending almost imperceptibly as I watched it from my hide at the edge of our tiny pond. I assumed its destination was the Bourbuese River, a quarter mile behind me, but as it banked toward my location, I smiled at the prospect of the magnificent bird, North America’s largest heron, landing at my feet. I folded myself deeper into the camouflage of my makeshift blind and strained my eyes upward to see the action without revealing my face.
It closed with the wind to its rear so I knew the landing would be tricky. Its long, trailing legs brushed the crown of a willow tree as it negotiated a 180-degree turn into the wind right over my position. On reflex, I dropped my head under the huge bird’s shadow. When I slowly looked up, the nearly 5-foot-tall heron stood 20 feet away, glaring in my direction. I wasn’t surprised it had made me, camouflage and all. Great blue herons are among the cagiest birds I’ve ever photographed.
As wildlife often does, the great blue heron evokes memories from my childhood. Our family had just rented a house in the country in Pulaski County and it wasn’t long before I discovered a pond nearby. You can imagine my surprise as a boy of 8 or 9 when I scrambled over the pond’s dam to find a giant, blue bird lifting off. It immediately reminded me of the “Pterodactyl” from our dinosaur studies at school. I couldn’t wait to get a better look at my fascinating discovery but my experience was repeated the next afternoon as the heron somehow sensed my approach and took flight again before I topped the dam. I finally lost interest after a week or two, but I still think of prehistoric birds every time I see a great blue heron in flight.
Great blue herons are found statewide in Missouri as they nest in colonies near large rivers, lakes, and wetlands. They are most commonly sighted during spring migration and after dispersal from nests in fall but I often see them along the Missouri River and at other locations in summer and winter, as well. Great blue herons will eat about anything they can swallow, including fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and even other birds. They simply grab smaller prey but as you can see from the featured photo, taken at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, they sometimes impale larger prey with their sword-like bills.
Great blue herons are extremely light and powerful in flight. The individual in the photo actually flew toward me from several hundred yards away with its catch, a large carp, dangling helplessly from its bill. I captured the image right before a second great blue heron dropped from the sky and purloined the scaly trophy from the successful hunter. Both magnificent and dramatic, great blue herons are a wildlife watcher’s dream.
—Story and photos by Danny Brown
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