In the next few months of the Cities + Nature BioGrounds project, the students of the BioGrounds Bird Team (General) will be taking turns highlighting a species of bird that we have identified somewhere on Grounds. This week, I will be showcasing the Great Blue Heron that quite often visits the Dell Pond at UVA.
A Great Blue Heron is a remarkable creature to behold. I have spotted one twice now, visiting the Dell Pond. The first time I noticed a heron at the Dell was last Fall, when a briskness was just beginning to touch the early autumn air. The heron’s fixed, pointed gaze and cautious, calculated slow movements seemed to perfectly match the crisp, clear air signaling the coming of the cold. I found myself a sun-drenched rock to sit upon and studied the heron for what seemed like hours (in actuality it was probably just a few minutes). The heron didn’t move, it stood poised, still as a statue, until in one fell swoop its razor sharp beak darted down to catch a fish. It swallowed the fish in one gulp.
The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marsh grass heaped above a muskrat hole.
He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow’s hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.
He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.
—Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
You may be wondering, “what is a great blue heron doing this far from the coast?” I was wondering the same thing. Apparently the habitat and hunting grounds of the great blue heron is not restricted to the coastlines of the ocean, but also includes marshes as well as the shores of freshwater ponds and streams. Also unknown to me was the fact that although herons typically hunt alone, they normally nest in colonies. In addition to eating many aquatic species including fish, eels, shellfish, and aquatic insects, these carnivorous birds also consume small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even small birds. In fact, it is not uncommon for a heron to choke to death because it’s attempted to swallow a creature that was too big for its long S-shaped neck.1
If you’ve never seen a great blue heron, they’re huge! Their height (3.2-4.5 feet) and wingspan (5.5-6.6 feet) make them quite a stunning creature to witness in flight. They typically fly between 20 and 30 miles per hour.1
Contrary to their breathtaking physical features, the great blue heron has a call that would make anyone want to put earplugs in immediately.
Rather than trying to describe the cacophonous calls of the great blue heron to you, I’ll let you listen to them for yourself…
I’d like to end with a question posed to another fellow BioGrounds Team – the Aquatic Life Team. My question is: what sorts of aquatic species are attracting this great blue heron to the Dell? Is the Dell teeming with all sorts of reptile, amphibian, and fish species that the heron finds simply irresistible? And what about this time of year – is there anything alive in there?
Post by Samantha Taggart, Fourth-Year, Environmental Thought and Practice