The Great Blue Heron, a coastal icon at risk: You may be used to seeing them, standing like statues along the shoreline waiting patiently to catch their dinner. Or admire their huge wings and lazy flight as you spot them flying overhead.
There is no doubt that the Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias fannini) is an iconic bird of BC’s South Coast. When standing, this blue-grey wading bird can be over one metre in height and can be identified in flight by its almost two-metre wide wingspan. Though unrelated, a somewhat similar species often confused with Great Blue Herons is the Sandhill Crane. Aside from having completely different plumage colours, herons fly with their head and neck in an ‘S’ shape while cranes fly with their head and neck pointed straight out.
Our subspecies of Great Blue Heron lives year round on the coast. They can be found stalking their prey in fresh and saltwater marshes, beaches, streams and open grassy fields. And to many homeowners frustration, poaching koi and goldfish from ornamental backyard ponds. While they mostly eat fish, they will also hunt for amphibians and small mammals. Nests are a flat lattice of branches, usually high above ground in mature trees. Colonies, like the one near the Tswassen ferry terminal can be quite large with as many as 350 nests. However, small colonies of only few nests are also common.
Based on its high visibility, you would be forgiven for thinking that our coastal fannini subspecies of Great Blue Heron is thriving. However, it has been listed as Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Population estimates indicate that there are only about 4-5000 breeding birds left in Canada – all of which are found in southwest BC. Talk about putting all your population in one geographic basket!
Main threats include human disturbance and loss of habitat due to development. These stressors impact Great Blue Heron’s ability to successfully breed. Bald Eagles, predate on the chicks of Great Blue Herons (and will also kill adults) and have become more of a threat due to their recovering populations. Intense and frequent disturbance (by humans) or harassment by eagles has resulted in many heronries being abandoned completely.
Part of addressing these threats involves identifying where the nests are located and establishing a buffer zone to protect the nesting birds from unexpected events or disturbances. For more information, go to the SCCP’s profile page on Great Blue Heron. If you see active nests let us know! Send your sighting to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tamsin Baker, Stewardship Coordinator
Image Credits: Herons on nest, Ross Vennesland, Heron in flight, Winnu Flickr, New heronry at Shoreline Park in Port Moody, Melissa Chaun