A star performance!


Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).


A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.


Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.



When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.


When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.


I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.


When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!


After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.


American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.


Communal nesting – the rookery at Sandy Creek Park

great blue heron DK7A5496© Maria de BruynUnlike Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and other songbirds, great blue herons (Ardea herodias) like to build their nests near one another, forming what is called a rookery, or colony of nests. The nests are often seen in the tops of tall trees and comprise large twigs and branches that surround grass, leaves and moss. As many as 135 nests have been counted in a rookery, but the one at Sandy Creek Park that I visited this spring had three nests.

The herons return to the nests for several years running. Each year, the males re-furbish the nests in order to attract a mate.

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You can see the nests well with binoculars from a walking path, but as I have no binoculars and rely on my camera’s zoom lens, I slogged through forest and marshy terrain on numerous occasions to get close to the pond that had their rookery pine trees on the other side. They were still a bit out of range for my lens, but occasionally I managed to get a half-way decent shot, which encouraged me to return often to follow the nestlings’ progress.I followed them from 8 March through 26 June.

great blue heron DK7A5924© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3689© Maria de BruynThe top nest in an open-to-the sky tree appeared to have four babies, while the nest below it had three.

A nest in a tree to the right, which had much more dense foliage, seemed to be occupied by only one or two babies.

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There were always 1-4 adults around, including both parents on the nest and “guards”, who took up posts atop nearby trees to watch the nearby skies. This is one reason for the rookeries; the herons want to ensure that there are adults around to protect the nestlings from predators, which include raccoons, crows and hawks, such as this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) that was hanging around the nests one day.

red-shouldered hawk DK7A7354© Maria de Bruyn red-shouldered hawk DK7A7371© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A6601© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3495© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron DK7A8238© Maria de Bruyn resThe parents feed their young by regurgitating food and the young birds get excited when a parent returns after being away for a time.

The nestlings make quite a lot of noise squawking loudly while they jostle to get first in line for the meal.

great blue heron DK7A3743© Maria de BruynThe young herons appear to “argue” with one another with loud calls and it seemed that they “jousted” with one another using their beaks.

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Weaker chicks may miss out on getting enough food and can die of starvation, but that didn’t happen at the Sandy Creek rookery. Some chicks were obviously larger and stronger than others, but even the smallest fledglings survived.As they grew, the babies began standing tall and walking around the nest.

great blue heron DK7A8283© Maria de Bruyn Great blue heron DK7A3638© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A9348© Maria de BruynWhen they were close to fledging, they stood near the edge of the nest and practiced spreading and flapping their wings. Sixty days after hatching (much longer than smaller birds!), the young herons were ready to fly and began taking short flights to nearby trees, before venturing out on farther trips. great blue heron DK7A8960©Maria de BruynThe young ones will not breed until they are two years old.

Watching events unfold at the rookery was a new past-time for me this year and likely one I’ll repeat in the future. If you have time and the opportunity, I’d recommend the experience!

Patient fishers of the bird world

great blue heron IMG_8830© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s not uncommon for visitors to our ponds, lakes and rivers to see what look like tall, statuesque bird sculptures on shorelines. The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) – North America’s largest heron species – can stand for long periods without moving or only slightly tilting their heads as they exercise extreme patience in their quest for a morning, midday or evening meal.

If they have a chance for easy pickings, these herons will certainly take advantage of it, as I discovered when the koi and goldfish in my pond were disappearing. But in their natural habitat they will scan the water intently to find their prey.

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If you have the time and inclination to watch them for a lengthier period of time, you will note how they hunch down and stretch up as they position themselves to get good views of the water around them.

great blue heron IMG_4174©Maria de Bruyn (2) resgreat blue heron IMG_4242©Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron IMG_8791© Maria de Bruyn resThey stare downwards and to the side, following the movements of fish, frogs and crayfish. When the wind blows, their plumed neck and tail feathers sway gently and beautifully in the breeze.

great blue heron IMG_4343©Maria de Bruyn resIf nothing seems nearby, they will move with quiet and slow deliberation to another spot, often quite nearby. Unlike the snowy egrets, they don’t stir up the mud with their feet or flap their wings to create movement in the water.

When a fish does swim by, they burst into very fast motion, plunging their long beaks and whole heads down to grab what they have spotted.



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They are not always successful, sometimes coming up empty beaked!

great blue heron IMG_8878© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8879© Maria de Bruyn resBut their patience obviously does pay off, too.

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Once caught, they need to work the fish or other prey around so that they can swallow it down smoothly. As they swallow their meal whole, this is important. (And they can eat a very large meal; there is a film on the Internet showing a heron swallowing a groundhog!!)

great blue heron IMG_8813© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8816© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron IMG_8477© Maria de Bruyn res

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If you look carefully, you can see the meal slide down their long necks.

great blue heron IMG_8826© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8484© Maria de Bruyn

Great blue heron IMG_0554©Maria de Bruyn resThis fishing strategy works well for the great blues as they can continue to hunt even when injured. This bird had a very badly damaged wing and apparently couldn’t fly anymore but it could stalk slowly in the lake as it looked for food.

The bird below had had some kind of encounter – either with a man-made obstacle or some form of wildlife that left it with an injured wing and broken leg. Bald eagles are one of the few predators of adult herons and this great blue lives at Jordan Lake which has a group of such eagles in residence. Despite the handicap, the heron could fly from spot to spot and then stand in wait for meals to swim by.

great blue heron IMG_9244© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_9247© Maria de Bruyn res

If disturbed, these birds emit a very loud and harsh squawk or croaking sound and then often take off. They certainly wouldn’t win any singing contests with their definitively non-melodious calls.

great blue heron IMG_8516© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8940© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron and egret IMG_5083© Maria de BruynThey prefer to fish in solitude and don’t care for other birds invading their territory. This great blue and great egret wanted the same spot and the great blue made some efforts to chase off its white competitor. However, the egret refused to leave and eventually they shared the spot with some meters of space between them.

Watching the herons fish has not only given me an appreciation for their innate patience but has also enhanced my own patience as well as I stand and wait with them until it’s finally mealtime.