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Great Blue Heron
Ardea herodias fannini

The great blue heron is adapted for year round living along Puget Sound. It wades in shallow waters, forages in eelgrass meadows, hunts small mammals in fields, and nests in large shoreline trees. Great blue herons nest in groups called "heronries." Some heronry locations along the Sound include Samish Island, Camano Island, and Hartstene Island.

Herons Nest Near Eelgrass

The large number of fish attracted to eelgrass meadows is the staple of the great blue heron diet. Many heronries are located next to eelgrass beds. These feeding areas are vital to the survival of the colonies. Great blue herons can be seen hunting in eelgrass meadows at Padilla Bay, Bellingham Bay, and Quilcene Bay.

 

Heron Facts

  • Barbecue Tongs
    The great blue heron seldom stabs prey. Rather, the heron uses its bill like barbecue tongs and clamps on prey.
  •  
  • Hollow Bones
    Adults are 4 ft. tall with a 6 ft. wingspan - but most only weigh about 5 lbs. How can that be? Heron bones are hollow.
  •  
  • Spring Action Neck
    The great blue heron has special neck vertebrae that create an "s" shape. This bone structure allows the neck to curl up like a spring to attack prey. It also allows the heron to fold its neck while flying.
  •  

    Herons Nest In Large Trees

    Herons build nests in a variety of tree species including: alder, cedar, hemlock, Douglas fir, spruce, cottonwood, and hawthorn. But most often, herons nest in big alders over 75 feet tall.

    At first glance, the long-legged herons might appear awkward nesting in trees; but they are adept at weaving nests in high tree canopies. With long toes, they grip branches and twigs and construct nests side by side "condominium" style. The size of the heronry grows with the amount of food available nearby.

    photo by John Loftus
    Do Not Disturb  
     
    In general, herons select nesting sites away from human activity, in quiet clusters of trees. If humans disturb heronries during breeding season, several studies show, the reproductive rate of the colony can drop or adult herons may move the entire colony. Bald Eagles may also attack heron chicks and cause a colony to move.
     

    Winter Survival

    Herons also seek undisturbed areas for winter hunting. In the fall and winter, many great blue herons survive by catching meadow voles - a tiny mouse-like mammal that tunnels in grass. Herons stalk these small mammals in quiet meadows, marshes, and farm fields.
    Heron foraging for rodents in grassy uplands in the fall.

    For many, the great blue heron is a symbol of pristine Puget Sound. The heron is also an important biological indicator of the health of Puget Sound shorelines. Herons need abundant small fish, as frequently found in eelgrass meadows, and older shoreline trees for breeding. As development spreads along the Sound, shoreline trees are removed, nesting sites are disturbed, and eelgrass beds are destroyed.

    Saving Heron Habitat

    You can help preserve heron habitat...

    • Preserve shoreline trees.
    • What comes off your boat and your land can pollute. Prevent water quality problems.
    • Protect eelgrass meadows.
    • Keep pets away from herons and under control.
    • While visiting the beach or boating, give herons and heronries plenty of space. Avoid going ashore near a nesting heron colony.
     
    Heron information source: The Great Blue Heron, R. Butler, UBC Press.

    Related Link

    Great Blue Heron, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
    Great Blue Heron identification and animated range map.  

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    Comments? E-mail: Shellyne Grisham