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A Bird’s View from Winds Way | The Great Blue Heron

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October 15, 2020

Nancy Gilbert

A monthly column written by Nancy Gilbert with photos by Richard Wines.

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Photo by Richard Wines

One of the joys of living on the East End is the long “shoulder” season and a lengthy fall migration for our avian friends. While many songbirds and warblers have already headed to warmer climes where food will be more plentiful, there are still lots of bird species passing through and others that will soon be arriving to spend the winter. Like walking, watching birds is something you can do almost anywhere and in a variety of weather conditions, with or without binoculars. And what a wonderful way to connect with the world around you!

One bird that is easily recognizable and best seen at this time of year is North America’s largest heron — the Great Blue Heron. Who hasn’t marveled as this large bird with its neck curled into an S, slow and steady wingbeats, and legs stretched out straight behind sails overhead? With a wingspan that can reach up to 6 ½ feet, this graceful flyer is hard to miss.

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Watching them, I always have the feeling I’m glimpsing life on earth eons ago as there is something prehistoric in their profile and majestic in their stateliness. Paleontologists and dinosaur-obsessed children of all ages now know that dinosaurs had feathers thanks to extremely detailed fossils discovered primarily in China.

Why is this the best time of year to observe the Great Blue? The birds have now completed their breeding cycle and young and old alike are flying south to find territories in which to spend the winter. Many will remain here if the creeks and marshes stay unfrozen and food is available. Others will migrate south and as far as Bermuda, Panama and northern South America. It is true that you can also spot Great Blues in March and April as they head north to breed, but they no longer build nests and raise young in this area. The last known heron rookery on the East End was on Gardiner’s Island and disappeared in the late 19th century.

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While Great Blues are in no immediate danger as a species, the loss of nesting habitat continues to be a cause for concern. Although we usually see solitary birds, Great Blues are colonial nesters and establish large rookeries. Their preferred sites are clusters of dead trees and tall shrubs standing in shallow water or wetlands.

In the 19th century, of course, many heron species were almost exterminated by what became known as the feather trade. The long ornamental plumes on the heads of Great Blues and extending from the middle of their backs may not have been as desirable to the millinery industry as those of Snowy Egrets, but decorating hats with bird feathers and parts of birds had a devastating effect on all members of the heron family. In 1903 an ounce of bird feathers was worth $32, making plumes worth twice their weight in gold at that time. Increased hunting and trade regulations, rising prices for dwindling supplies, changes in fashion and the determination of several women in Boston that led to the founding of the Audubon Society in 1905 to protect waterbirds finally brought an end to this horrible practice.

The pictures of a Great Blue standing on a nest were taken through a birding scope by leaning out of our bedroom window. The pile of sticks is actually an Osprey nest! You can see the wonderful bluish-gray coloring and black head plumes. There is no way to distinguish males from females, but juveniles have less dramatic coloring. I’m fairly sure the bird fishing is a juvenile (also note the peripatetic fishing style!) while the bird on the nest is an adult. The silhouetted birds were taken in the spring not long after the Osprey returned. Perhaps the Great Blue in this photo was looking for an opportunity to steal the Osprey’s fish!

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Great Blues are often seen standing still in shallow water or quietly stalking their prey. The prey is swallowed whole after having been stabbed with a quick thrust of the daggerlike bill. Fish are the favorite item on the menu, but herons will also eat snakes, insects, and small mammals like mice and voles.

Despite being such large birds, Great Blues weigh about 5 lbs. In the wild, they can live up to 15 years. Both females and males incubate the nest and care for the young. The young will hatch sequentially (the female usually lays 4 eggs) after 25 to 30 days, and the babies will be ready for their first flight in 60 days.

How lucky we are to share the East End with Great Blue Herons! I know that some of you with ponds stocked with expensive koi may not share this perspective and hope there are effective ways to protect those ponds. But I also hope that we learn to appreciate the variety, richness and the fragility of the natural habitats this place we call home provides and the wonderful creatures with whom we share it.

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A Bird’s View from Winds Way is a monthly column by one of our board members and avid birder, Nancy Gilbert — with photos from her husband Richard Wines — on our local birds. Nancy’s columns appear on our blog, so please tune in each month for more from Winds Way.

About the Author

Nancy Gilbert is a board member and a conservation easement donor — as well as avid bird enthusiast and master gardener. In December 2001, Nancy and her husband Richard Wines, donated a conservation easement to the Trust on their property, Winds Way, in Jamesport. This easement protects 9.9 acres of agricultural land as well as 1.7 acres of scenic beachfront woodlands and wetlands on Great Peconic Bay. Also protected by the easement are the facades of the historic buildings located within the 3.2-acre development area, including a Greek-Revival residence, an historic barn, and a mid-19th century one-room schoolhouse. You can learn more about Winds Way and its history on their website: windswayfarm.com

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