One of my favorites and probably the most interesting bird on the Rumsey Island Canal is back again for another year of fishing on our waterway. Actually they never had to leave us and take their trip south this winter. The only reason they ever leave at all is so they can do their fishing thing. During a normal winter, the canal gets covered with ice and they are not skilled at ice fishing, but that was not the case this year.
The Great Blue Heron are making their ritualized Spring flights up and down the canal. I have seen four of them thus far, two large male birds, pursuing two not quite as large females birds sailing and flapping back and forth across the waterway. ‘Tis spring and they are in love , with nests somewhere along the marsh already built or in the process of being re-built. They nest high up in the branches of a tree along a body of water or a swamp. They lay up to 6 eggs about the size of a pullet egg, slightly blue in color. Of those 6 eggs, about 3 will hatch and 1 or 2 chicks will survive to adulthood.
Normally Great Blues are solitary birds and the only time they associate with each other is when breeding and nesting. Then they suddenly become very gregarious, 4 or 5 nesting in the same tree, if it is large enough to hold that many nests. They will form colonies in isolated swamps and return year after year to hatch their young.
I have observed them closely for the past 9 years, as they station themselves along the Rumsey Island Canal, sometimes just a few short feet from my observation point, the patio of my apartment.
They stand motionless on the edge of the concrete bulkhead that impounds the waters from the Gunpowder River. If undisturbed by human or animal encroachment, they will remain for an hour or more in a spot where they see or sense fish. If the tide is high and the reach is not too far, they spear the fish as it comes near the surface with their sword-like beaks or grasp him in an open beak. Their fishing method depends largely on the size of the prey.
Once they seize their dinner, the fun begins. If it is a smaller type fish or a round type fish, like a mullet or yellow perch, they simply roll it around in their beaks so it can do a head-first dive down their long necks to an awaiting stomach. The really interesting stuff starts when the fish is a White Perch or s small Bass, one who is higher than he is wide. The gullet being round and the fish being high and wide, you can actually observe that fish from the time he enters that bird’s mouth until he reached the bird’s body. The fish is forced, by jumping, tossing, hopping and other antics of the Heron, down that narrow passage. At times he will stand right there on the bulkhead and go through these gyrations which can take up to an hour or he or she will take it in her beak to a more secluded spot and go to work.
One of the tactics for getting choice smaller fish is to see a fisherman at the edge of a pond or, in this case, the edge of the canal and stand at a safe distance and wait for the fisherman to catch a fish too small to keep. Fisherman have gotten on to her plan and will toss the smaller ones to her. She remains in place, grabs the fish in the air or off the ground and another denizen of the deep goes down the gullet.
The Great Blue Heron , our native bird, and the Great White Heron, which are normally found in Florida and along the Gulf Coast have a fast digestive system and are fish-eating machines. Some people think that the large winged and long-legged Heron are pterodactyl from the Dinosaur Age . Pterodactyl were about the size of a turkey but were actually flying lizards and not birds. Without getting into a 10,000 word dissertation on the various Ages of the Dinosaur and Jurassic periods – birds did evolve during the Jurassic Age but were actually competition for Pterodactyls but that’s a topic for another day’s blog.
Get out there and enjoy this beautiful day but be sure to keep an eye open for these big beautiful creatures of the sky. Then come back and let me know what you find.
Don LangrehrAre you receiving your free digital subscription to The Zone Magazine? If not, click here!