To me, the great blue heron looks like a leftover primordial creature with its long spindly legs, its equally long curved neck, its flowing plumage, and its sharp dagger-like bill, which it uses to stab its prey. It occupies both freshwater and saltwater habitats throughout North America and is a common sight along our Finger Lakes shorelines. Primarily a fish eater, the great blue heron is also known to dine on amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and birds, and baby waterfowl. I once photographed a great blue heron eating a chipmunk. Slowly stalking its prey in shallow water or open fields, it can strike with lightning speed from a stock-still standing position – and it seldom misses.
The great blue heron offers even more of a primeval image in flight, resembling a miniature pterodactyl with its slow, powerful wing beats, its neck held in an S-curved position, and its long legs trailing behind. Its 6-foot wingspan enables the great blue to easily lift off from a standing position and to fly long distances to its next destination. While most herons migrate to warmer environs during the winter, some hardy individuals will remain and tolerate cold northern winters as long as fish-producing waters remain ice free.
Great blue herons usually nest in colonies, known as rookeries or heronries, near lakes or wetlands, where they build sizeable nests from sticks and twigs in standing dead trees. But some herons do nest on the ground. There are several heronries located in the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge at the north end of Cayuga Lake.
After an impressive courtship, which includes a ritualized greeting, head bobbing, and bill-clacking, the male great blue heron gathers the nesting materials and presents them to the female who weaves them into her nest, which is then lined with mosses, grass, and leaves. The female lays from three to six pale blue eggs, which are a bit larger than a chicken egg. One brood is laid per year and both parents take turns incubating eggs. Both parents also feed the nestlings by regurgitating food. Young herons make their first flights between two and three months of age and return to the nest for about three weeks in order to be fed. After that, they’re on their own.