Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Other Heron

At the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival in January many of the participants had the desire to see particular birds to round out their life lists. These can be birds that are often present in San Luis Obispo County but are rarely found.

Of the large wading birds, great blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, and black crowned night herons are easily spotted in the waters of Morro Bay and in fields and ponds inland. But try and find a Least Bittern or a tricolored heron and you have taken on a difficult, if not, impossible task.

There is another heron that lives here and should be able to be seen year round. So why is it we don't see more of the green heron?

The green heron, sometimes referred to as the little green heron or the green-backed heron is a solitary bird. It is the runt of the heron family at approximately 16 to 18 inches long and has the tendency to hunch up its neck making it appear even shorter. Adult birds have a glossy dark green crown, gray-green back, chestnut colored neck, white chin, and orange-yellow legs.

Green herons are one of the few birds that use tools. It stands stock still over water and drops bait onto the surface. When fish rise to the bait, it strikes. The bird uses a variety of lures including insects, worms, twigs, and feathers.

Herons in general are masters of stoicism, standing motionless like statues, neck stretched out and bills pointed downward, waiting to strike their prey, which they do with lightening speed.

When disturbed the green heron will erect its short crest, lengthen its neck, and flick its tail. People don't notice them until they do these motions or they see the bird fly off unexpectedly. Often the only way these small herons are noticed at all is by the movement of their eyes as they search the waters. Green herons in particular can meld into their backgrounds and appear like logs thanks to their distinctive coloring.

Green herons breed along creeks and streams, in marshy and swampy locations, and on the edges of lakes. The nest is placed somewhere above ground, often in a tree, and is a platform of sticks. The female lays three to six pale blue to greenish eggs that hatch in 21 to 25 days. Both parents incubate the eggs. Juvenile birds resemble bitterns with streaky brown colorations.

When breeding season ends green herons like other herons wander far and wide seeking favorable foraging locations. You might spot green herons at Laguna Lake, Lopez Lake, Atascadero, Nacimiento and San Antonio lakes, and in the estuary area of Morro Bay. Keep an eye out for them. They are a treat to see and you can add them to your life list.

Photo of Green Heron at The Living Desert, Palm Desert, California
Sometimes birds in captivity suffer from diseases and deformities that they might not get if they were still in the wild. This bird has a deformed bill and while it can still feed, it cannot be released into the wild. It is uncertain whether the bird developed this problem before being brought to the Living Desert wildlife organization.