Mother Nature was in a whimsical mood when she designed these tall skinny birds with long stick-like legs. Almost everyone in Kitsap County has spotted a Great Blue Heron, one of our least cryptic feathered friends. Perhaps they’re not as common as crows, but they could be close.
Recently, while floating in a canoe, I spotted a Great Blue standing statue-like next to shore, neck curved downward, that awesome beak poised. (Picture a Game of Thrones sword.)
Suddenly it stabbed the water and emerged with twisting silver. Then, its neck held straight up, it swallowed the fish whole, sending lunch down a long narrow corridor into a waiting gullet.
Great Blues are full of surprises; they can even stand on floating beds of kelp, head down, waiting for lunch to swim underneath. “Walking on water” like this isn’t hard if you’re 5 feet high but weigh only 5 or 6 pounds. Having hollow bones helps too.
These birds hunt day and night, thanks to eyes with an abundance of photo receptors. And that efficient “freeze and wait” technique is a skill to be envied.
There’s also the “walk fast and flush the prey” method, and the “patting while flying” trick. The latter involves brushing the water’s surface with the wingtips, dipping the beak, and dining while in flight. In the air, this bird can even fold those massive wings and perform an Olympian medalist’s high dive straight down to grab a meal.
Snatch flying insects in midair? No problem. FYI, the preferred menu also includes frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, rodents, gophers … even small water birds. Of course, it helps to have binocular vision plus a long flexible neck for a strike that’s accurate and powerful.
Nesting takes place in colonies located near water bodies. The male chooses a spot high in a tree, then attracts a mate by stretching its neck and pointing its beak skyward. Meanwhile, the smitten female fashions a nest of sticks and soon lays from 2 to 7 pale blue eggs, incubated by both parents taking turns. The resulting young are fed by regurgitation, and in about 60 days, they’re capable of flight.
Here in the Salish Sea area, the adults nest only once annually. However, next year those fickle males will choose a new mate; the female doesn’t seem to mind.
While the species is seen throughout North America and migrates seasonally, our own Salish Sea residents must like this area as much as we do, because they remain here all year. If you come upon a Great Blue Heron, be very still and you may witness the extraordinary skills of a talented bird.
Nancy Sefton writes the monthly Kitsap, Naturally column for this newspaper.