If you visit enough streams, lakes and rivers within the Commonwealth, it’s almost certain that you have seen herons.
Four species of heron call Pennsylvania home. Three are in trouble.
The Great Egret, Yellow-crowned Night Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron are all listed as state endangered species. Yes, egrets are considered to be in the heron family, and are usually white or buff in color.
Great Blue herons are the only ones that are thriving in the Keystone state. They are one of Pennsylvania’s largest birds, by height and length. A typical adult will weigh just 5 to 6 pounds, but will stand up to 48 inches tall, and can have a wingspan of up to 79 inches.
Although Karen and I have personally seen as many Great Egrets as Blue Herons, it seems that Great Blues are adapting better to the diverse topography of Pennsylvania. Herons nest in colonies, or groups, for the sake of protection. More birds on more nests mean more eyes to watch for predators.
Great Blues typically prey on fish, reptiles and amphibians by slowly stalking them in shallow water. They then strike with lightning speed, using their long necks and sharp bills. But, they will also “go mousing” according to Patti Barber, endangered species biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
“What they’ll also do, and I’ve seen this, is you’ll see them in a field. They’ll actually go mousing,” Barber said. “They’ll catch small mammals if they can. They will eat whatever’s small enough to go down their throat, and that they can subdue. That’s the only limitation.”
Recently, while visiting two different golf courses in the area, I was pleasantly surprised to see both Great Blues and Great Egrets. Each seemed to be paired with another, and were enjoying the bounty of the streams that wound their way into small lakes.
Perhaps, there are more here than usual, simply because those lakes and streams never froze over this past year. Great Blue Herons will sometimes overwinter in the state, if enough open water remains. If the bodies of water freeze, they’ll make the perilous migration south, traveling sometimes as far as the northern extremes of South America.
The hope, of course, is no matter how or where they travel, they’ll continue to do well here, and over their entire range, which extends across virtually the whole continent. Both Karen and I have been fortunate to photograph hundreds of both species.
We have noted that the “Blue” seems more cautious than the Great White, and the Night Herons seem to be the most secretive of all the species.
Having sat for countless hours, trying to photograph all species is at times a daunting task. Usually, when I have seen them in an area, I will sit and wait for them to return, knowing that sometimes they will, but occasionally they simply move on to another area.
Much like stalking white-tails, I try and move slowly and cautiously, keeping some sort of cover between me and the bird. I would safely say that only about 40 percent of my efforts are successful.
Capturing one in flight is even more exciting, and over the years, we have both taken photos of them flying. At first, we try to simply capture an image of one. After being satisfied with a number of good shots, we try to get some in “action,” which usually means they have speared a fish.
You have to be quite patient, and wait for them to make a move. It’s never easy, but well worth the effort. If you have ever watched a heron hunting for food, you will find out what persistence is all about. They spend almost all of their time in pursuit of nourishment, and their success rate isn’t as great as you might think.
I have watched them hunt for hours on end, and find that their misses are far more frequent than their hits. This explains why you don’t see them just resting very often.
I’m torn on what is the most exciting, catching them with prey in their beaks or freezing them in flight. This may not mean anything to the average observer, but amazingly to me, many walk by without seeing those herons. I’m often asked, “What are you looking at?” When I reply, “A heron,” they often say, “Oh,” and walk on by.
We contend that all wildlife is important, and that includes herons, who have moved when encroached upon by human developments. Herons, and other species of wildlife are indicators of good water quality.
It’s an age-old question, “Who needs wildlife more than human life?” I suspect that wildlife would be just fine without us, perhaps better off. There would be no human disturbances out there, no exploitation of our natural resources, no malls or housing developments, no pipelines and no fracking.
But humans would definitely find a huge void without wildlife, for they signal the health of the land, and are a gift to be treasured. So, when you are near a body of water, make sure to take the time to observe these magnificent birds.