If Beaver Lake has a lake bird, it has to be the Great Blue Heron. While Great Blue Herons are not uncommon anywhere, it seems that on Beaver Lake, every cove and isolated shoreline has its own Great Blue. I was on the lake both Saturday and Sunday this weekend in the War Eagle area. On Saturday during a two-hour trip on War Eagle Creek, there were at least four Great Blues. Sunday morning, Sharon and I were out on the White River arm starting from the War Eagle recreation area. During our 1 ½ hour trip, we saw five different Great Blues.
The Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias) is a stately bird. According to Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, the Great Blue is the largest of the North American herons. The heron can stand as much as 4½ feet tall and has a wingspan of 6 feet. They can weigh as much as 7½ pounds. The backs of the Great Blues are steely blue gray and their bellies are fine white feathers. They have some rusty reddish spots on their undersides. They also have a long yellow bill. The most striking feature is their long flexible necks and long skinny legs. I guess I relate well to the long skinny legs.
According to John James Audubon (courtesy of the Audubon Society’s website), the Great Blue is a solitary individual except during breeding season. They fish alone and roost in trees by themselves at night. They may at times also fish at night. During breeding season, the Great Blues gather into groups. They build nests of thin sticks in large trees with multiple nests to a single tree. These communities of nests are referred to as heronries. If you paddle your canoe or kayak way up into the headwaters of Beaver along the War Eagle arm, you may spot such a heronry. I have not counted the nests, but they are numerous.
Interestingly, Audubon also comments in his journal about the taste of Great Blue Heron. Young birds, he said, were tolerable eating. But old birds were not to Audubon’s taste. He preferred Crow or young Eagle to old Great Blue Heron. Audubon didn’t leave us any recipes and besides, Great Blue Herons are now protected by the migratory species act.
Great Blue Herons eat mostly fish. If you have patience and you are really well hidden, you can watch them fish. They either stand still in water or move ever so slowly, wading through shallow water. When a fish is foolish enough to get with in a couple feet, the long flexible neck snaps straight out and the fish is stabbed with the Heron’s long bill. Audubon says that occasionally the fish is not instantly killed when stabbed by the bill so the Heron beats the fish to death on a handy rock. Audubon also says that Herons include small mammals and insects in their diet as well.
Great Blue Herons apparently don’t like humans much. It is really hard to get close enough for a good picture. As soon as they notice you approaching, they take off to another fishing hole. They always leave with a comment or two. It is something like, “Fraaaaaaaack.” I assume that means “go find something else to bother you big galoot.”
At any rate, the heron flies away some distance and resumes fishing.