It was one of those picture perfect days in early September along the Gulf Coast, the Alabama coast to be specific. The sun was making tracks low across the southern sky. I slipped off my shoes and headed across the sand dunes, the fine silica sand along Perdido Key feeling delightful under my feet. Like most people, I am always drawn to water be it salt or fresh. Lugging my trusty backpack full of camera gear, I had hopes of catching that perfect sunset picture on the beach. A soft sea breeze brought the salty smell of fish. Beyond the first breaker, not 50 yards off the beach, a school of bait fish, probably menhaden, scattered in front of a predator bent on getting his supper. Scattered low clouds hung along the horizon. I had snapped several pictures as the setting sun lit up the clouds when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) sailed right into my lens view and lit close by posing this way and that. The perfect shot!
If ever you have been to the coast, you will recognize the silhouette of this magnificent wide- ranging bird, the largest of the Heron family in North America. With its bluish, slate-gray body trimmed with chestnut and black accents, long legs and equally long bill to match it is a beautiful creature. The six foot wingspan makes it look enormous and with its black eyebrow tapering to black head plumes it is truly distinctive. Just about the time you have fallen hopelessly in love with this bird, it opens its mouth and out comes a most raucous sound hardly befitting the stately bird in front of you.
The Great Blue, like all Herons, is a wading bird and thus the extra long legs. They feed in the shallows along streams, marshes and coastal areas taking all manner of fresh and salt water creatures but preferring small fish, crabs, frogs and the like. And they are not afraid to beg for food, as any fisherman will tell you, often waiting on the dock only a few meters from anyone with a fishing pole and eying every fish pulled out of the water. Great Blue Heron are migratory birds, moving south just ahead of the frost line in winter though some may spend their entire lives in one area provided the food supply allows it. The species usually breeds in colonies, in trees close to wetlands or lakes or tidal areas. The female lays three to six pale blue eggs that are incubated for some 27 days. Great Blues are one of the bird species where the male also incubates the eggs taking turns with his mate. Young are fed partially digested, regurgitated fish, etc, by the parents, a recipe guaranteed to put on feathers. Well it works for them. So, next time you are on the water or at the beach, keep an eye out for this fellow. And if you hear a raspy, raucous sound likely as not it is a Great Blue.
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