Great Blue Heron Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I posted one of my species dossiers. The idea is to make a record of what I know of a species from my own experience rather than what I have learned from others. This is a valuable exercise. When I got the idea and started it, I was embarrassed by how little I could write even for common species. It has forced me to pay more attention, to observe more, to be more discriminating in what I can claim to know about natural history. Even books and, yes, Internet sources like this blog need to be read skeptically. Today I choose the great blue heron, a species that played an important role in inspiring my interest in natural history studies. Records are dated with my code that begins with the day of the month, followed by a two-letter month code (usually the first two letters of the month’s name) and a two-numeral year. The code 16JE99 would indicate June 16, 1999.

Great Blue Heron

First observed at Hawk Lake, where several fished along the east side each evening in summer during my childhood. These were an early inspiration for my bird watching interest. Also observed in PA, along the Tippecanoe River in IN, in DuPage County, in Florida. Seek food usually in relatively deep water, sit-and-wait foraging. They quickly extend the neck to seize or spear fish or other prey. On rare occasions I have seen them briefly swimming on the surface of water too deep to wade. One in FL waited for fishermen to catch fish, then ran up in hope of getting the catch.

They have loud raucous squawking calls, a brief one in flight (often when disturbed) and a longer more rattling one when handled (i.e. at Willowbrook’s wildlife hospital).

Rookery established around 1967 south of Culver, Indiana, near the Tippecanoe River, in several large sycamores at the edge of a small woodlot near S.R. 17. That site still was used through 1986. Birds appear standing in nests in mid-March, radiate out in many directions to feed. Great blue herons then also reached all parts of DuPage County, IL, despite no rookeries there (a large rookery south of the county at Plainfield).

24JA89. A great blue heron flying east of Lake Maxinkuckee, IN.

10MR00. Several herons have returned to the new, small (10-nest) colony at Danada Forest Preserve.

7MY00. Great blue herons croaking in flight, traveling above West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. An extended string of them, so the calls may be communication between flying birds.

13NO01. I count 25 nests, now, in the Danada rookery. The trees are at the edge of a pond. They are not sycamores, but I didn’t get close enough to ID. Elm shape.

21FE02. A single heron was standing on a nest in the Danada rookery at 4p.m. The winter has been mild, and it’s not inconceivable that a GBH could have survived the winter locally.

1SE02. At 10:30 p.m., a great blue heron in Geneva, standing in shallow water in the Fox River, apparently fishing in the street lights.

16JE03. This year I know of 2 large nesting colonies in DuPage County, both established in recent years. One is at Danada Forest Preserve, the other at Pratts Wayne Woods, near the intersection of Rt. 59 and Stearns Road and visible from both.

8AU03. I kayaked between Willow Springs Road in Cook County and Route 83 in DuPage on the Des Plaines River. There is a strung-out colony of great blue herons nesting over a 2-mile stretch of river that spans the county line. The nests are in scattered dead trees close to the riverbank, taller than the surrounding trees, 2-5 nests in half a dozen trees total. Though separated sometimes by more than a hundred yards, the trees each seem to have one of the others in view.

28MR06. At Tri-County State Park, the 2 nests from last year (a new satellite of the Pratts Wayne colony) gradually had lost most of their sticks. On the 23rd, herons returned (later than in the larger colonies), and now are building the nests back up. One seen carrying a long thin stick in its beak, flying up to a perch beside the nest and giving it to its mate standing in the nest, who then added it. Two additional pairs perching in those trees, but no new nest starts yet.

18JA09. Danada. Checked great blue heron rookery. Most of the 15-20 nest trees were living cottonwoods, and 90% of the nests were in these. Two were dead trees, and three were willows. One cottonwood had 16 nests, a couple had 13, one had 11. Total nests counted 142. The rookery is in a swampy area around a large pond. Last summer I also learned of a rookery at Churchill Forest Preserve, on the islands in the East Branch of the DuPage River.

11OC10. During a dragonfly monitoring run on the Des Plaines River I noticed that, in addition to the scattered great blue heron nests in tree tops along the shore, there is at least one group of trees with a number of nests in a more concentrated colony. There are more than a dozen nests in at least 3 adjacent trees. This cluster is on the river’s south bank, east of Route 83.

Herons Return

by Carl Strang

 

A few weeks ago I shared photos  of the great blue heron rookery at Danada Forest Preserve. Here is why that visit had to be done in the middle of winter.

 

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Already they are returning and reclaiming their nests. I took this photo from the regional trail. It would be an unjustifiable disturbance to approach any closer now. It looks like this rookery will continue for another season.

Rookery Trees

by Carl Strang

 

The great blue heron was the bird that first inspired my interest in learning about nature when I was a 7-year-old, watching several of them in a small lake one calm summer evening. A few years later a number of great blue herons established a new nesting colony near my hometown of Culver, Indiana, among the large branches of a grove of sycamore trees  in a swampy woodland.

 

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An interesting development over the past decade has been the proliferation of great blue heron rookeries in DuPage County. One on Danada Forest Preserve near the center of the county had 25 nests or so by 2001. Another large colony has been growing for several years at Pratts Wayne Woods. Close to there, at James Pate Phillips (Tri-County) State Park, an offshoot of the Pratts Wayne rookery existed for a few years in a group of dead trees, but this experiment is on the verge of ending as the trees lose branches. There is another small rookery at Churchill Forest Preserve, and a final one strung out along the Des Plaines River in and adjacent to southeast DuPage County.

 

Remembering the Indiana rookery, I was curious about what species of trees were supporting the Danada colony. On a recent frigid weekend morning I went there to find out. It had to be done in mid-winter, both to avoid disturbing the birds (which could begin to return by the end of February), and to take advantage of frozen ground and water for easy travel.

 

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I found the colony to be situated in swampy woodland surrounding a large pond. Most of the 15-20 nest trees were living cottonwoods, and 90% of the nests were in these.

 

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Two of the nest trees were dead, and three were willows. One cottonwood had 16 nests, a couple had 13, and one had 11.

 

danada-gbh-rookery-1b

 

I counted a total of 142 nests. There may have been more; we have had some strong wind storms since the nesting season which could have dismantled some nests. Like sycamores, cottonwoods have open canopies and thick branches capable of supporting the relatively large stick nests herons construct. Most of the trees in the colony woods were cottonwoods, so a statistical examination limited to that bit of woodland would not reveal much about heron preferences. It appeared likely that the other trees there simply lacked the necessary support structure. A few willows were used, but each had the capacity for fewer nests. The better question is how the birds choose the rookery site in the first place. Trying to answer that would require a longer-term examination of many colonies.

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