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Don’t Mess with the GBH

It’s nesting time now in our protected wetlands, and a really fun time — the biggest and smallest waders are settled into their annual nests (some of them, including the Great Blue Herons, return to the same nests each year). I’m running a bit behind on the nest-building activities, always a fascinating process to watch. But in the meantime, I couldn’t resist this episode that caught me unawares the other evening. I heard a GBH’s croaking cacophony (select the last option in this list — croaking calls, wing noise — for the best example) in one of the usually quiet rookeries. He or she was obviously not very happy.

Great Blue Heron, Florida Wetlands

And the tantrum begins… Echoing through the wetlands

At the time, I couldn’t see the source of torment for the heron, who was probably chasing something away from a newly-created nest. The previous night, a group of GBHs was screaming in another rookery, because an alligator swam too close for comfort to their nests. I didn’t see the gator actually nab anything, but the collective croaking, screaming noise could be heard throughout the wetlands.

As it turns out, an anhinga had the gumption to impede on this heron’s space.

Great Blue Heron, Florida Wetlands

Flushing out the enemy anhinga

The look on the poor anhinga’s face as it’s being flushed out of the rookery is priceless…. Of course I was worried for the poor anhinga: Did he have a nest too, or was he just looking for a comfy spot for the night? Either way, I wish I wasn’t walking onto the scene so suddenly, and had some time to properly prepare for the shot, to include his appalled mug.

Great Blue Heron, Florida Wetlands

Respect the wingspan

And for the Great Blue Heron? Unabashed triumph.

Great Blue Heron, Florida Wetlands

I am queen

Watching the Divine

Stranger

by Thomas Merton

When no one listens
To the quiet trees
When no one notices
The sun in the pool.

Where no one feels
The first drop of rain
Or sees the last star

Or hails the first morning
Of a giant world
Where peace begins
And rages end:

One bird sits still
Watching the work of God:
One turning leaf,
Two falling blossoms,
Ten circles upon the pond….

(For complete poem, click here)

Deep in a swamp of the northern section of our Everglades, we spied this solitary Great Blue Heron relaxing on a fallen log. Far in the SWA Trails of the Grassy Waters Preserve — along the outer Owahee Trail — there was little to disturb her. She remained there on our return trip, hours later — at complete peace in the beautiful remnants of this most amazing and completely unique ecosystem.

Here’s to hoping that Mother Nature is gentle on Florida, and that Isaac gives us nothing more than nice winds and rains. A shift to the west would be extra kind, to provide Texas with some much-needed rain…. In the meantime, there are many brave and wonderful people working overtime in preparation for the upcoming storm — including 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida. This group rescues dogs, abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the harsh wilderness of the Everglades (along with cats and even horses). They provide these animals desperately needed medical attention (many are starving), and find foster and permanent homes for them. Much luck and love to these volunteers.

The Great Blues, and Another Baby

Great Blue Heron at Dusk, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Nesting season continues at our protected wetlands, and the ever-graceful and regal Great Blue Herons consistently fuel the attentions of nature lovers and photographers. Now that Florida’s “Season” has ended however, the more timid (*me*) can enjoy these creatures. I haven’t written much on them, so here’s a bit of general info on the species.

Description & Habitat

Great Blues — also known Blue Cranes, California or Florida Herons, Espiritu Santo Herons, San Lucas Herons, and Treganza’s Herons — can be found in North and Central America, as well as in the West Indies and the Galápagos. They’re the largest of the herons in North America, and globally their size is surpassed only by the Goliath Heron and the White-bellied Heron. At 4 feet tall, and with a wingspan of 7 feet, they’re a stunning sight in our swamps and wetlands, as they stalk the shallow waters with long and deliberate steps, and fly overhead with slow and strong wing beats. In flight, they tuck in their necks, and their long legs trail behind. Save for migratory and nesting periods, Great Blues hunt and travel alone. They’re typically found near the shores of open water and in wetland environments, in both saltwater and freshwater habitats — including marshes, rivers, lakes, bays, lagoons, coasts, shores, and ponds. Like many other wading birds, Great Blues are primarily active at dawn or dusk, when fishing’s at its best. To observe them standing stock still, scanning and stalking the waters and surrounding vegetation for prey, is mesmerizing. Once they spot a fish, they strike with lightning-fast precision to grab or stab it — but they’ll also eat frogs, shrimp, crabs, insects, reptiles, rodents, and small birds.

Nesting & Breeding

Great Blue Heron in Flight

Great Blues are monogamous, and will remain with their mate for the breeding season. Usually only one brood a year is produced; however, a Great Blue may raise another, if the original clutch is destroyed or abandoned. They breed in groups, or colonies, alongside other herons (and egrets). These breeding colonies, or rookeries, are located in all types of trees that can support their nests — in our area, tree islands are the preferred structure for the Great Blues’ rookeries. Tall tree branches or shrubs may also suffice — as long as the nest sits near water or wetlands. They build their nests out of sticks and twigs, and line them with a softer material, such as plants, feathers, or down.

Great Blue Heron Pair at Their Nest

Great Blues will try to nest in the same spot each year, using the old nest. Ours definitely do, and defend their nests aggressively against each other as well as against predators. Females lay 2-7 pale blue eggs, which are incubated for about 25-30 days. The young hatch over several days, and the Great Blue parents share the responsibility of feeding the young at the nest, by hunting on a full-time schedule and regurgitating the food. The battle for food is brutal among the chicks; the first to hatch is more experienced in food handling, and consequently grows more quickly than the younger hatchlings. Such aggression in the interaction with the sibling chicks (as well as the discrepancy in size) can be seen at the wetland rookeries, where it’s hard not to root for the younger, weaker chicks that are consistently beaten after fierce battles for food. The young Great Blues leave the nest at 2-3 months (60-90 days).

Great Blue Heron Pair at Their Nest

See The Nesting Great Blues for images of earlier nests and the growing young….

Threats

The average lifespan for a Great Blue in the wild is 15 years — although a maximum lifespan of 24.5 years has been recorded. Sadly, nearly 70% of Great Blues die before reaching the age of one year; contributing factors include repeated human disturbance to their nesting sites, resulting in abandonment of eggs or chicks. Other factors of premature death include accidents, harsh weather conditions, illegal hunting, and predation of eggs, nestlings and adults.

But as mentioned, we’re fortunate that Palm Beach County has created and preserved a marsh and wetland ecosystem for these and so many more animals in Wakodahatchee(Seminole for “created waters”) and Green Cay — so on to the new baby!

Oddly, there was only one hatchling at this Great Blue’s nest. I missed this event, but there were several hours of the mother Great Blue fiercely defending her newborn from a Turkey Vulture.

Great Blue Heron Mother and Her Baby at the Nest

…And the same growing baby, one week later!

Great Blue Heron Mother and Her Growing Baby at the Nest

They grow quickly — but fortunately, the above little one won’t have to fight for food like these nearby juveniles, waiting patiently at their nest for the next meal…

Great Blue Heron Juveniles Waiting Patiently at the Nest

Great [Blue] Daddy!

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, check out this amazing time-lapse video of a male Great Blue Heron, as he diligently protects 5 eggs during an April 27 snowstorm. All 5 hatched — despite the snow, and despite constant owl attacks. What a good daddy!!

 

The Cornell Lab features some fascinating live feeds of various birds, and now the Great Blues are nesting…. But numerous species are featured on their live cams.

Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more information.

The Nesting Great Blues

I’m lucky to have close access to the Green Cay and Wakodahatchee Wetlands (Seminole for “created waters”), and when we’re not able to hike the Everglades or some of the other far-reaching natural area, a stroll around these boardwalks will soothe my spirits. It’s full-on nesting and baby season, and while I’ve posted some pics of the anhingas and others (the baby gators I’ve yet to post), I’ve saved the biggest for last: the ever-so-graceful Great Blue Herons. Their displays at the rookery fuel the attentions of every amateur and professional photographer and birdwatcher for miles, and the meek (*me*) have no place if it’s crowded…which is fine, because while the herons are divine, there’s plenty of other loveliness to be found when no one’s looking.

The Great Blue parents share the responsibilities of feeding their young at the nest, by hunting on a full-time schedule and regurgitating the food. The battle for food is brutal among the chicks; the first to hatch is more experienced in food handling, and consequently grows more quickly than the others. Such aggression in the interaction with the sibling chicks (as well as the discrepancy in size) can be seen at the Wakodahatchee rookeries, where the humans root for the younger, weaker chicks that consistently lose after fierce battles for food. This particular nest had two young herons — there initially may have been more eggs however, because we spied an iguana lurking in the depths of the rookery, obviously looking for eggs to steal.

For More Information:

The size discrepancy of the chicks often dictates the winner of the food…

The end of a fierce struggle for food…

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge: A Winter’s Walk in South Florida

A very chilly and windy day at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge provided an absolutely LOVELY opportunity for the native Floridians who anxiously wait year-round for such times to explore, without the constant threat of Jurassic-sized mosquitoes. With the dark skies, the birds were either hunting or doing their best to stay warm — several hawks made themselves known, but the great-horned owls were impossible to spot, despite their persistent and seemingly close cries. And high in the beautifully colored cypress trees — the moss lit on fire with the sun’s long rays — a group of pileated woodpeckers rambunctiously searched for grub.

For More Information:

Cypress Swamp Colors in the Winter, Arthur R. Marshall

Cypress Swamp in the Winter, Arthur R. Marshall

Cypress Swamp Colors in the Winter, Arthur R. Marshall

Blue Heron in the Trees, Arthur R. Marshall

Blue Heron in the Trees, Arthur R. Marshall

Winter Tree and Vines, Arthur R. Marshall

Red-shouldered Hawk, Arthur R. Marshall

Red-shouldered Hawk, Arthur R. Marshall

Pileated Woodpecker, Arthur R. Marshall

Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee: Breezy ‘Glades

A very windy day at Arthur R. Marshall — absolutely LOVELY! And the visiting (human) snowbirds are beginning their weekend trips to the Florida sanctuaries and parks. Hopefully the trash won’t accumulate, as it sadly can during such times of increased traffic — definitely a mixed blessing.

For More Information:

Park signage

Great Blue Heron at Dusk, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Sea Grape, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Tree-hugger, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Everglades Landscape, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

Alligator in the Glades, Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge

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