I took a walk to a nearby rocky beach on a sunny afternoon and spotted a Great Blue Heron along the rocky shoreline. While they have a loud, squawking call that has startled me in the past when a heron was hidden from view, this heron was silent and still. He was hunting. Or rather, fishing.
Standing still, towering over the calm surface of the water, the heron watches and waits. A silent hunter, he moves slowly and deliberately, with every step planned and taken with a ballerina-like grace. With impeccable eyesight, he scans the water below for any brief movement of fish and then strikes quickly. Their eyesight is so keen they can even hunt during the night if need be (Cornell).
I watched him repeat the process above a number of times, catching at least four or five of these what I believe are hagfish or an eel. After capturing a few small fish, he later managed a much larger one, though with it was a bit of a struggle as the fish kept winding itself around his beak. I recorded a video of the struggle and hunt you can watch at the end of this post. I wondered why he didn’t try piercing it with his beak or hitting it on the rocks. Perhaps he is a younger, less experienced heron.
In flight, Great Blue Herons are easily identified by their characteristic S-shape formed by their neck and their long, slow wing flaps as if they are never in a hurry to get anywhere. They are the largest wading bird in North America, standing at 1m tall (Species At Risk) but weigh only 2 to 2.5kg (SFU).
I admit I see Great Blue Herons all the time around Vancouver Island, but they still fascinate me as much as the first time I saw one. They weren’t always so common, though. Like their top predators, the Bald Eagle, heron populations suffered from the effects of DDT (SFU) and they are still vulnerable to other pollutants in the marine environment. Although they have recovered somewhat, they remain a species of special concern on Canada’s Species At Risk List.
Another factor in their decline is that their young are particularly at risk to Bald Eagle predation (SFU). While they are usually solitary creatures, Great Blue Herons form large nesting colonies high up in trees, hopefully hidden well away from prying eyes and predators. They are very sensitive to human disturbance and sadly, often nest in areas near bustling human activity which leads to nest abandonment (Species At Risk). A good example is the Great Blue Heron colony in downtown Vancouver’s Stanley Park which you can quietly watch from home live on webcam.
My video below shows my experience observing the heron hunting described at the beginning of my post.