A Summer with Little Blue Herons

February 8, 2020 ~ I’m in awe of photographers who make one trip and come back with enough keeper photos to create an entire blog post. I’m definitely not there yet. So this post includes photos from Brazos Bend State Park and Sheldon Lake State Park spanning six months… the summer of 2019 in the life of the Little Blue Herons.

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October – Little Blue Heron pretending to ignore me
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/6.3 ISO 4000 at 500mm
Click on any image to enlarge; then close the image window to return to this page.

The Little Blue Heron is an elegant bird, about middle-sized as herons go. Among the herons found south of Houston Texas, Green Herons are the smallest, then various Night Herons, then Little Blues, then Tri-color Herons, then Great Blue Herons. And then it gets totally confusing, as bitterns and egrets are taxonomically “herons” also.

Let’s just stick to the Little Blue for now. The males and females look the same, the adults of both sexes having lovely blue-gray bodies and darker maroon heads, with greenish-gray legs, and a gray bill fading to black at the tip. All the birds in this post are in non-breeding plumage.

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May – Graceful Little Blue Heron
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/800 f/7.1 ISO 1600 at 500mm

Herons eat all kinds of water creatures, amphibians and some insects. They often hunt fish by shadowing, holding their wings overhead to shade the surface of the water at their feet, reducing glare and making the fish below visible. If you watch carefully, you’ll notice a very slight hip-waggle; herons roil the mud and water first with one foot, and then the other, to chase up fish and crustaceans. In this August shot, he has just caught a fish. You have hunt for hours to make a meal of these tiny critters.

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August – Overworked adult Little Blue Heron shadowing for fish
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/2000 f/5.6 at 500mm

And here, in September, he’s caught what looks like a tasty spider among the water hyacinth.

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September – Adult Little Blue Heron with water spider
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/4000 f/5.6 ISO 2500 at 500mm

Here along the Texas Gulf Coast, the Little Blue Herons can be seen all year long.

range map
Range map courtesy of All About Birds

They raise their chicks in bulky nests of sticks in low trees with few branches (their broad wings need clearance!). I’ve seen them in rookeries along the north side of 40 Acre Lake at Brazos Bend State Park, and on the three little islands at Resoft Park, in Alvin TX.

But the biggest surprise for me regarding these birds, is to see the babies – they are pure white! Since the Little Blues nest and raise young among the white egrets and white ibis, this appears to be a handy camouflage for these little guys during their first year.

The chicks hatch in late March. By July, the babies have grown into demanding squawking teenagers, who can manage to fly short distances from tree to tree in the rookery, and who shout and push to receive a meal.

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Late July – Juvenile Little Blue Heron pretending to be big
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/4000 f/5.6 IAO1600 at 500mm

You can tell the difference between these juvenile Little Blue Herons and the very similar juvenile Great Egrets partly by size (the Little Blues are a bit smaller), but also by their gray bill and green legs (Great Egret juveniles have a yellow bill and black legs). You can also see a bit of dark gray in the tips of the Little Blue’s wing feathers. For a comparison, check out the image of a Great Egret parent and juveniles on my home page.

The parents start to look lean and a little haggard during summer. Not only do they constantly hunt on behalf of their young, but the young are quite aggressive, clamping their parent’s head in their beak and wresting, intent on receiving every disgorged morsel.

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Late July – Adult and demanding juvenile Little Blue Heron
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/4000 f/5.6 ISO 1600 at 500mm

In October I visited Sheldon Lake State Park, northeast of Houston.

Sheldon Lake St Pk
Sheldon Lake State Park with settling ponds along south edge of park

This park has a large open lake surrounded by lots of treed cover. But it also has a series of small ponds for settling and purifying, by which runoff water is slowed in its return from the urban drainage bayous to the lake.

And here, I caught a regal Little Blue Heron in a royal pratfall.

I had set up my tripod on a small pier along one of the settling ponds to watch a Little Blue stepping deliberately along a branch overhanging the water. When I first saw him, he was eyeing what was beneath him; I assumed he could see fish swimming in the shaded pond.

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October – Adult Little Blue Heron hunting above the pond
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/6.3 ISO 2000 at 500mm

Suddenly the heron turned and sprang in a nose-dive toward the water! He had spotted something in the greenery, and was now dangling upside down by one foot, his wings splayed above him, as he grabbed for his prey.

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October – Little Blue Heron takes a nose dive
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/6.3 ISO 2000 at 500mm

The air was filled with indignant squawks and slapping branches as the bird struggled. The leaves parted, and I was finally able to see what had happened. In trying to get a firmer grip on his prey with both his beak and his foot, his foot had clamped around his own beak, and he was unable to make a second grab for… the escaping frog! Can you see the frog’s pale green belly, a couple inches to the right of the heron’s bill, as he leaps away?

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October – Missed!
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR on tripod
1/1000 f/6.3 ISO 2000 at 500mm

The heron quickly righted himself, shook off his embarrassment, and returned to his regal perch where we saw him at the beginning of this post. Nothing to see here, move along.

Please forgive the focus in these photos. I was intent on capturing the action, and I can see lots of motion-blur and out-of-focus messiness. I was thrilled to have witnessed this bit of nature-in-the-raw, so I’m sharing my photos with you in spite of their marginal quality. I learned my lesson: always be ready for the unexpected. Google Maps tells me I was 127 feet from my subject. The PhotoPills DOF Calculator says I had 6.5 feet of focus depth. I could have set my aperture to f/5.6, and then used a faster shutter speed for better stop-action.

I’m getting excited as spring approaches. Soon the Little Blue Herons will be in their breeding plumage, when their heads are more noticeably maroon, and their upper beak and lores (the skin around the eye) turn azure blue. Perhaps by then I’ll be ready for a post on Spring with Little Blues!

4 thoughts on “A Summer with Little Blue Herons”

  1. WOW! Awesome stop-motion photos! The escaping frog and upside-down heron made me laugh. Lucky guy! (The frog.) I’m impressed by how blue the little herons look, it takes no imagination to see it. Not like the great blues.

    Like

    1. Yep, you are right, in certain lights, the blue really shows. I’ve learned that some bird colors show most clearly in the sun, and others show most clearly in shade, or on cloudy days.

      Like

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