Wherever roads curve toward the water here, you are likely to see either the stately Great Blue Heron itself or its iconic image on a painted sign.
Watch its S-curved neck suddenly shoot down beneath the shallow water with lightning speed to spear a small fish, crab or other hapless crustacean meal. Herons are truly iconic wetland symbols because we expect to, and do, see them everywhere land meets fresh or salt water all across America.
Despite long legs, heron feathers do get splashed and dirty. They preen and clean by spreading waterproof powder-down over all their plumage from small wispy feathers produced beneath their body feathers. Other specialized feathers are seasonally produced — long, branched plume feathers for courtship displays, and to intimidate rivals or predators.
Great Blue males bring sticks to wetland trees where their mates build the nests in communal heronries. Both parents incubate the three to six eggs until hatch in three to four weeks. Helpless at birth, chicks grab parent beaks for a regurgitated meal. Young stay in the nest for up to two months. The west’s largest Great Blue heronry is at Anacortes, with about 600 nests. Regrettably, smaller local heronries are in decline. The likely reason: human-caused small heronry habitat loss, and to our credit, bald eagle population recovery after DDT was banned.
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Heron, egret and bittern family
While the Great Blue, at four feet tall, is our largest heron found in Gig Harbor year-round, Washington hosts several of the dozen American family members with about 65 species worldwide. The S-curve in their necks in flight distinguishes them from other long-legged waders like storks and cranes with straight necks.
Other family members in western Washington include common but nearly invisible American Bitterns. Two white Egrets, the Great and Snowy, feed along rivers and the coast. Green Herons inhabit low elevations. In eastern Washington, nesting Black-crowned Night-herons feed nocturnally. Cattle Egrets found their way to North America from Africa on their own, and eat grasshoppers disturbed by grazing cattle and farm equipment.
Christmas bird counts
Last December, Gig Harbor was a key participant in the Tahoma Audubon Chapter‘s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC), compiling here 74 species with 3,971 individual birds including 10 Great Blue Herons. CBCs are America’s oldest Citizen Science Project dating back to 1900. While many birders participate just for fun, this annual bird census is a serious measure of bird population changes all across America. Learn ways you might participate in their exciting upcoming Spring Birdathon count at www.TahomaAudubon.org.
Another historic heron family conservation connection in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the killing nearly to extinction of Great and Snowy Egrets, especially in Florida, for their fancy delicately-branched plume feathers to adorn fashionable women’s hats. The founding of the National Audubon Society and the passage of the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1913 were instrumental in ending this deplorable practice.
Icons also inspire personal stories. One of my favorites: My wife and I often kayaked on small Round Lake near our upstate New York home. After circling the lake awhile, we would follow the outlet toward the Hudson River to admire a heronry.
On our last visit, we were blocked by a low beaver dam. We joked that the herons had hired the beavers to provide walled security. In reality, beaver dams drown marsh-side trees. Some are felled for food, dams and lodges. Those left standing unintentionally create new heron nesting trees. Our heron fascination continues to grows here in Gig Harbor.
Create for yourself, or inspire in youngsters, heron stories, art and poetry: “Herons,” by writer-illustrator Frank Staub, Lerner Publ., Minneapolis, MN, 1997; “An Egret’s Day,” by poet Jane Yolen, photographer Jason Stemple, Wordsong, Honesdale, PA, 2010. Both books for children and adults are available at the Gig Harbor Library.