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Valley Wilds Article | Great Blue Heron by Ranger Vickie 

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Herons are large birds with long legs, long necks, and a sharply pointed bill. The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest of all the North American herons. These birds are large, measuring 36–54 inches long, have a wingspan of 66–79 inches, a height of 45–54 inches, and can weigh between 4–7 pounds. 

Herons are blueish-gray in color with red-brown thighs and a dark stripe along the side. Their face is white with two dark plumes from the eye area to the back of the head. They also have a large yellow bill with shaggy feathers on the lower neck. 

Found throughout most of North America, this bird is a common and delightful sight all year round. 

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You can look for great blue herons anywhere there is water, such as coasts, lakes, streams, wetlands, and creeks. They can also be found in fields and meadows. That means you can see them almost anywhere in our park, often spotted hunting near the creek. 

The primary food for the great blue heron is small fish, but they are not picky and will eat just about anything, including rodents, birds, snakes, frogs, salamanders, turtles, and insects. Herons mostly hunt in an ambush-style by sight. If you see a heron standing still in the field, it is often waiting for a prey item to come by. It will stalk the prey slowly, strike quickly with its spear-like bill, and swallow it whole.   

This species usually breeds in colonies or large groups, hovering about 20-60 feet high in trees near lakes, creeks, or other wetlands. There is a rookery, or nesting area, in Sycamore Grove Park, where some great blues can be found during early spring. Around March or April, the female lays one clutch of three to six pale blue eggs. Incubation is by both sexes and lasts for 25-30 days. Eggs are usually laid every other day and hatch asynchronously over several days. This means the first egg is immediately incubated, rather than the bird delaying the birth process. Because the first egg has been incubated the earliest, it will hatch first. As a result, the first chick is older and bigger than the ones hatching later.

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Sometimes, the larger chick will push the smaller, weaker ones out of the nest. Both parents feed the young at the nest by regurgitating food. The young are capable of flight at about 60 days old, but they may return to the nest to be fed for roughly another three weeks. Herons are very sensitive to human disturbance and will often abandon nests if people get too close, so if you see one in the park, please observe from a distance. 

These large birds are fun and easy to spot, even for someone with little knowledge about birds. With over a six-foot wingspan, great blue herons are impressive, particularly in flight. You can look for these birds along the creek in the Nature Area, where they can frequently be seen fishing.