As spring approaches, the various large waders prepare for the breeding season, and some confusion may arise as the special feathers are visible, and being showed off.  Let’s look at the bigger herons first – specifically Great Blue Herons, Little Blue Herons and Tricolored Herons.  Great Blues stand about five feet tall, and have a huge wingspan.  In flight, their slow, laborious wingbeats are very distinctive, and the long legs trailing behind tell you that they’re herons (and not vultures or eagles).  In our area, no other large wader flies like that – the largest Egret (Great Egret) has more of a normal wingbeat (apart from being all white), but Great Blues always look like they’re working hard, and maybe pretty tired.  When these herons take off, they often have the neck stretched out at first, and between that and the low, guttural ‘Frawnk’ call as they take off, I always find myself irresistibly reminded of pterodactyls.  These birds are apex predators, and will eat almost anything they can wrestle down their throats – I’ve seen them eat small mammals and reptiles as well as fish, and they will hunt on land, if less often than in the water.  Great Blues aren’t actually so much blue as grey, but the size alone is usually enough to ID them.

Little Blue Herons, in contrast to Great Blues, are sort of bipolar in their plumage.  As adults, they have a nice purple-and-blue color pattern, but as youngsters, they’re a nice white color like the Egrets.  That will be covered in the next post, however.

The ‘shaggy’ look, with the extra plumes, is the special breeding appearance – outside of the breeding season, the birds generally look sleek and neat.

Tricolored Herons are generally found more toward the coastal regions in our area, and the distinctive white stripe down the front lets you identify them in any plumage.  They’re more active foragers than the sedate and unhurried Great Blues, and the longer, thinner, dark-tipped bill may be a little confusing with the Little Blue’s shorter, curvier beak, until you see the white front.