Eleanor Hooper with George in Casey Key (c. 1994)

Birds: Heron

Often asked, “What is your favorite bird?” my wife, Tracy, always says, “the Great Blue Heron.” Not just any blue heron, although that would be true, but THE blue heron, George. We always spotted George when we were visiting my dad in Casey Key, Florida. Just outside of Venice, the small barrier island is a paradise for shark’s teeth, sandy beaches, magnificent sunsets, and ocean swims. Dad bought the place, he called, “The Squirrel’s Nest,” and moved to Florida permanently in 1990. He and his wife, Dicky, had a charmed life on the Key before they moved to Sarasota for the last years of life.

George was just one of many birds my dad loved, but for Eleanor, pictured above, and Tracy, George was a spirit and wild creature, a totem and sacred energy, a bird and a symbol of independence. Herons are that way. They stand regally of one leg or two and balance for what seems like hours, waiting to strike at the unwitting snake or fish in the waters nearby.

We were canoeing on Myakka State Park one trip and witnessed a patient Blue Heron as it speared a small mouth bass, bigger than the bird’s head. The heron flipped the fish in the air, caught it again, head-first and firmly bobbed its head up and down as the fish slithered down the bird’s expanding neck toward its stomach. Our girls sat in awe as the acrobatic bird digested its prey. They remember the scene to this day, some twenty five years later.

Herons are known for their long necks and massive wing span, which can be up to

Largest of the North American herons with long legs, a sinuous neck, and thick, daggerlike bill. Head, chest, and wing plumes give a shaggy appearance. In flight, the Great Blue Heron curls its neck into a tight “S” shape; its wings are broad and rounded and its legs trail well beyond the tail.

  • Length: 38.2-53.9 in (97-137 cm)
  • Weight: 74.1-88.2 oz (2100-2500 g)
  • Wingspan: 65.8-79.1 in (167-201 cm)

Great Blue Herons appear blue-gray from a distance, with a wide black stripe over the eye. In flight, the upper side of the wing is two-toned: pale on the forewing and darker on the flight feathers. A pure white subspecies occurs in coastal southern Florida.

When hunting Great Blue Herons wade slowly or stand statue-like still, stalking fish and other prey in shallow water or open fields. Watch for the lightning-fast thrust of the neck and head as they stab with their strong bills. Their very slow wingbeats, tucked-in neck and trailing legs create an unmistakable image in flight.

Look for Great Blue Herons in saltwater and freshwater habitats, from open coasts, marshes, sloughs, riverbanks, and lakes to backyard goldfish ponds. They also forage in grasslands and agricultural fields. Breeding birds gather in colonies or “heronries” to build stick nests high off the ground.

Family (Ardeidae) includes Bitterns, Herons and Egrets.

American Bittern Adult/immature