Birdwatch

Little Blue Heron

A late-summer pleasure

By Susan Campbell

Late summer can be an especially exciting time for those of us who are birders. The abundance of species — whether it is our familiar non-migrants or those beginning to return from Northerly nesting grounds, and even the post-breeding dispersal this way of families from our South — one never knows what might turn up next. Colonial waterbirds as a group display wandering behavior more than most, especially the egrets and herons.

You don’t need to travel far to find unexpected visitors. Weather events may cause waterbirds to be blown off-track and show up in the neighborhood. But these lost birds may only stick around for mere hours. However, in other instances, it may be a more deliberate response to environmental conditions that brings them our way.

One bird that frequently appears in wet areas later in the summer (even a good distance inland) is the little blue heron. And it may not be one but several of them that are found together. Surprisingly, they are not usually blue birds. This is because young of the year are actually white. Except for the very tips of the wing feathers (usually a challenge to make out), these birds are covered with white feathers. Unlike the great or snowy egret, which is more common along the coast at this time of year, the bill of these small herons is pinkish or grayish and the legs are greenish.

All these white waders may be spotted in shallow wet habitats: streams, small ponds, water hazards, retention areas. Little blue herons may be by themselves or mixed with other white long-legged waders, or even the much larger great blue heron. Little blues can be identified by their more upright foraging posture and slow, deliberate movements, and a downward-angled bill as they stalk prey. Unlike other smaller waders, they will hunt in deeper water, often all the way up to their bellies. Little blues watch for not only small fish but frogs and crayfish as well as large aquatic insects. It is thought that their coloration allows them to blend inconspicuously with similar white species. The association then provides protection from predators.

Little blues are significantly more successful predators when foraging alongside great egrets. These larger birds are likely to stir up the water as they move after underwater prey, which can flush a meal in the direction of nearby little blues.

It takes these herons at least a year to develop adult plumage — not unlike white ibis, which also breed along our coast (but sport dark plumage their first summer and fall). They may have a pied appearance for a time in late winter or early spring. But by April they will be a slate-blue-gray all over with a handsome bluish bill. Unlike our other wading birds, they lack showy head or neck plumes; they are also unique in having projections on their middle toes that form a comb, which is used as an aid when grooming.

Unfortunately, the little blue heron has experienced an alarming drop in population numbers over the past half-century across North America. Loss of coastal wetland habitat, continued declines in water quality as well as being shot as a nuisance in fish hatcheries all are factors in their decline. So be sure to stop and appreciate these stately birds should you come across one — regardless of where you happen to be.

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.

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