Monday, November 24, 2014 · 1:47 a.m.

Riverwalk Bird of the Week: Great blue heron

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The oldest great blue heron, based on banding recovery, was 24 years old. (Photo: Jack Gentle Jr.)

The folks in the Riverwalk Bird Club don't just watch birds. The group includes some excellent photographers.

Nooga.com Outdoors is happy to share their great photos by featuring a Bird of the Week.

This week, we feature a great blue heron, taken by Jack Gentle.

Interesting facts
Whether poised at a riverbend or cruising the coastline with slow, deep wing beats, the great blue heron is a majestic sight. This stately heron with its subtle blue-gray plumage often stands motionless as it scans for prey or wades belly-deep with long, deliberate steps. They may move slowly, but great blue herons can strike like lightning to grab a fish or snap up a gopher. In flight, look for this widespread heron’s tucked-in neck and long legs trailing out behind.

—Thanks to specially shaped neck vertebrae, great blue herons can curl their neck into an S shape for a more aerodynamic flight profile and to quickly strike prey at a distance.

—Great blue herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

—Great blue herons can hunt day and night, thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.

—Despite their impressive size, great blue herons weigh only 5 to 6 pounds, thanks in part to their hollow bones—a feature all birds share.

—Great blue herons in the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada have benefited from the recovery of beaver populations, which have created a patchwork of swamps and meadows well-suited to foraging and nesting.

—Along the Pacific coast, it’s not unusual to see a great blue heron poised atop a floating bed of kelp, waiting for a meal to swim by.

—The white form of the great blue heron, known as the great white heron, is found nearly exclusively in shallow marine waters along the coast of very southern Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula and in the Caribbean. Where the dark and white forms overlap in Florida, intermediate birds known as Wurdemann's herons can be found. They have the body of a great blue heron but the white head and neck of the great white heron.

—The oldest great blue heron, based on banding recovery, was 24 years old.

—Great blue herons congregate at fish hatcheries, creating potential problems for the fish farmers. A study found that herons eat mostly diseased fish that would have died shortly anyway. Sick fish spend more time near the surface of the water, where they are more vulnerable to herons.

This information is courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

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