The shorelines along the east coast of Vancouver Island, from Parksville to Campbell River, are home to one of the most easily recognized shorebirds, the great blue heron.
This elegant, graceful bird is also fiercely territorial and a stealthy, patient hunter. Great blue herons can alter their appearance by hunching over to resemble a rock or elongating their bodies and necks to blend into the marshland, virtually disappearing into the reeds.
Standing approximately one metre tall and weighing up to two kilograms, great blues have a 180-centimetre wingspan and can cruise at speeds between 32 and 48 km/h.
Large rounded bodies are supported by long, fragile-looking legs and large, splayed feet that are partially webbed, allowing them to walk across aquatic vegetation.
Habitat for herons includes, shallow shorelines, estuaries, marshes and wetlands that include both fresh and salt water. Their habitat must provide suitable secluded nesting sites where they will congregate in a heronry or rookery.
Graceful yet powerful fliers, great blue heron territory covers about three kilometres; easily recognized in flight, great blue herons fold their necks back and rest their head between their shoulders, their legs trailing behind as they fly with slow, deep wing beats.
Equipped with a very long, sharp beak the heron will either use its beak to stab, or use the beak like a pair of tongs to snap up the prey, which will then be repositioned with a toss of the head to be swallowed head first.
Great blue herons are very social birds, living in communal colonies that are away from humans. However, as Stanley Park in Vancouver shows us, they do adapt to urban areas.
It still amazes me that these gangly creatures choose to build their nest high in treetops, which are not easy to land in and leave their eggs and young at the peril of predators whilst offering little shelter from wind and rain.
In the past few weeks, MARS has rescued two young herons, the first fell from a nest fortunately only its pride was hurt and is recovering after being transferred to another wildlife centre where it is being raised with another healthy orphan. We hope it will soon be returned here to be released into the territory it came from.
The other young heron was less fortunate, having been plucked from the nest by an eagle and taken for a ride before being dropped to the ground in Deep Bay. This heron sustained numerous lacerations from the talons that needed suturing, which was done by intern student Claire Poppe from Ontario.
The heron is thriving, eating well and certainly very feisty.
Our young birds need earthworms and native berries. If you can help, please drop them off at MARS at 6817 Headquarters Rd.
Great blue heron populations are stable in our local areas, but they face many environmental issues as the wetlands decrease and suitable nest sites away from humans are on the decline.
It is important that we stay away from nesting areas and keep dogs away from the shoreline when herons are present, watching or photographing herons from a distance is a rewarding experience.
Visit our website at www.wingtips.org for more information, or call us at 1-800-304-9968 if you need advice or need to report an injured or orphaned bird or animal.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.