Most are familiar with the Great Blue Heron that is common along most of our county’s waterways. This bird is probably the most recognized member of this group found in this area. Commonly sighted along the Lake Erie shoreline as well as many other inland aquatic habitats, it is best known for its characteristic nesting in colonies. The Great Blue is one of 65 members of this group worldwide, with 13 species found in North America and 11 reported from data in the Western New York area.
One reason I chose this group to discuss was the fact that on Sunday, May 25, I received a telephone call from Terry Mosher, who was with a group of birders at the Dunkirk Harbor, where they spotted a Little Blue Heron. This unusual sighting is only one of six that I have in my Chautauqua County records and one of 11 reported from the Buffalo Ornithological Society database in Western New York. This database covers the territory from Rochester west to the Pennsylvania border. The picture of this bird in this article comes from the late Willard F. Stanley collection. Dr. Stanley was a biology professor at SUNY Fredonia and one of my instructors. Upon his passing, Mrs. Stanley provided me with many of his photographs he took from around the country. I plan to provide a PowerPoint program at a future Lake Erie Bird Club meeting, highlighting his photographic work.
Other members of this bird family sighted in addition to the Great Blue Heron and the Little Blue Heron in our county include the American Bittern, Least Bittern, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Cattle Egret, Green Heron, Black-crowned and Yellow-crowned Night Herons, and the Glossy Ibis. Both members of the Vulture family are also included in this group, but will not be included here.
Historical records of these birds identify 17 species in North America. Several of the birds have since been lumped into single species after genetic and biological investigation reduced the numbers of different kinds. Generally speaking, these birds are gregarious and strictly carnivorous, exploiting a wide variety of live prey. While their diet includes mostly fish, frogs, salamanders and other types of live prey, their long legs and necks allow them to forage in aquatic habitats and their bills permit them to spear their prey. Nest defense is interesting, as they will usually only defend the territory around their nest. On the other hand, their defense of the feeding territory becomes an interesting sight to watch.
I have been entertained while watching several of these birds, especially the Great Blue Herons at the Jamestown Audubon Society ponds. When two or more approach the same feeding area, a vicious, short struggle may occasionally take place. Courtship displays are also always a fascinating sight. There may be bodily color changes that take place, such as the lores (space between the eye and the bill) become enlarged. Some of these birds develop nuptial plumes, such as the Snow Egrets, and in addition to body structures for breeding purposes with expansions and contraction of plumes for mate attraction, they are a joy to observe. If you have not had an opportunity to watch some of these behaviors, I suggest you take a ride to the Audubon Center or to any local small lake, pond, marsh or swampy area, where there is opportunity to observe the herons in feeding behavior. It is a treat not to be forgotten. This is becoming the right time of the year for just that.
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A Great Egret.