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Inside the Outdoors: Great blue heron is a model of wariness

One of the more common birds of summer on the lake and the small wetlands near where the family cabin has been a presence for well over a half century, is the great blue heron. I find it one of the most wary and unapproachable of birds.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

If you spend enough time focused on birds with your eyes, with binoculars, through a camera lens or any combination of these, you begin to draw conclusions about bird behavior.

Wariness - how cautious and easily alarmed a creature is - is an important dimension of behavior, for it can sometimes mean the difference between survival and doom.

Some creatures are more approachable than others. The common loon - symbol though it is of remote and unspoiled wilderness - can be surprisingly tolerant of humans when we’re aboard a watercraft; at least one that is traveling at a reasonable speed. Gulls, opportunistic in the extreme, easily become comfortable with humans, to the point of being an annoyance as they beg for food on resort lawns, at marinas or as they hover above the stern of a fishing boat hoping to share in whatever bait might be in use.

Great blue heron looking for its next meal. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.


One of the more common birds of summer on the lake and the small wetlands near where the family cabin has been a presence for well over a half century, is the great blue heron. I find it one of the most wary and unapproachable of birds.

It’s called “great” blue heron because it’s notably larger than most of the other heron species, including the green, yellow-crowned, black-crowned, Louisiana and the little blue heron of New England and the Eastern Seaboard, a bird little more than half the size of our great blue heron. Only the great white heron of the Florida Keys, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico is its equal in size.

All are members of the group known as “long-legged waders.” It’s an apt description of the manner in which they hunt for food in the shallows of lakes, wetlands and streams, standing statue-still or moving at a snail’s pace on stilt-thin legs to make a meal of a frog, fish, hatchling water bird - such as a duckling or grebe - turtle, snake, salamander, mouse or insect large enough to catch their attention.

Herons stalk cautiously and slowly and capture their prey with a dagger-shaped bill propelled by a lightning-like thrust of the neck.

Great blue heron caching a small fish. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

I find the great blue heron among the more skittish and difficult birds to approach, one example being when trying to capture their image with a camera and telephoto lens. I often bring camera gear when I’m on an errand, on the chance that I might encounter wildlife of one kind or another. I might pass a pond, marsh or small lake, and if the road follows the shoreline I’ve been known to pull onto the shoulder a safe distance and drive slowly - vehicle flashers on - with my window down and camera at the ready.

By this practice I’ve managed to capture decent images of geese, swans, sandhill cranes, ducks, loons and the occasional deer. They don’t exactly pose for the camera. But when you take one by surprise, it may freeze for a few moments, just long enough to depress the camera’s shutter button and capture it digitally.


Without risk of exaggeration, I’ve had the least success at this when it comes to great blue herons. It’s not that they’re absent. In fact, one of these wetlands closest to home almost always has a heron - often more than one - in the shallows. If there is a screen of cattail, bulrush or other aquatic vegetation between the camera and the heron - far from ideal for a photo, of course - the bird is likely to remain immobile, relying on the common ruse of “motionless-equals-invisible.”

But if the heron I encounter on a pond or wetland is exposed, highly visible and in a place and pose that would make a really good photograph, my camera’s shutter will most likely capture only a fraction of its anatomy, or maybe the bird in the act of becoming airborne.

Missed shot of a great blue heron as it flies away. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Herons have proven - at least for me - to be intolerant of close contact with anything so abnormal and out-of-the-ordinary as a car creeping along the road shoulder, let alone a human in plain sight.

It seems ironic that a bird that may nest in treetop colonies in close contact with dozens or hundreds of its kind would act as reclusive and shy as those I’ve witnessed. Nor is it a bird that is unusually vulnerable to predators, which - if that were the case - might explain a heron getting “a case of nerves” at any small provocation.

But adult herons have few predators, due to their large size - some stand more than 4 feet tall - and formidable armament in that dagger-like bill.

The bald eagle is one of the few creatures that will prey on herons at any stage of their life. Far more numerous are those that prey on a heron’s eggs and nestlings, including raccoons, crows, mink, weasels and foxes.


Man was once a heron predator, too, during the market hunting era when hundreds of thousands of plumed birds of many species were killed for the feathers that chiefly adorned fashionable hats.

Great blue heron flying low over a calm morning lake. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

There is anecdotal evidence - evidence that is good enough for me! - that I’m not the only one who thinks great blue herons are among the more wary of birds. It’s well-known that many duck hunters employ decoys - plastic, foam, cork or wooden replicas - that not only represent the kinds of ducks they’re seeking, but instead are used as “confidence” decoys.

Confidence decoys are those that hunters imagine will make their spread of standard duck or goose decoys appear more real, or that represent a bird that is believed to be wary by nature. The theory is that if a replica of a wary bird is among the duck decoys, it must be a safe place to land.

One of those most often mentioned as conveying this sense of safety is the great blue heron. You could go on the internet right now and find at least three sources for great blue heron confidence decoys designed for hunters.

Maybe one of those would pose long enough for me to get a great photograph!


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