Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, South Texas Border Chapter
I’ve learned to recognize the small dark, neckless hulk of a green heron, sitting statue-like on the retaining wall at dawn – if not by silhouette, certainly by battle cry, abrupt takeoff, and rapid flight to a less human-occupied hunting perch over the resaca shallows.
There are 11 species of herons in Texas, including bitterns. Green herons are the next to smallest; the least bittern is the smallest.
Green herons are deep blue-green on the back with a dark blue cap, rich cinnamon colors at the breast and neck and a bold white streak under the neck. They have a long, daggerlike yellow and dark-streaked bill, yellow eye lore and yellowish-green legs and feet. Juveniles have heavily streaked underparts. They are about 18 inches tall when standing, but usually hold their necks tight against their body, giving them a stocky, hunched look. Their wings are noticeably rounded. In flight, they are compact, almost ungainly, like a C-130 military transport aircraft in miniature, and then out of sight in an instant – they can reach speeds to 30 miles per hour.
Green herons are year-round residents along the Texas Coast. They live near shoreline aquatic habitats, including oceans, lakes, rivers, marshes, swamps, ponds, estuaries, mangrove nurseries and streams with abundant vegetation for nesting and hiding.
They’re not so much shy as they are loners, and more annoyed than paranoid it seems when I accidently get too close. Although, I was photographing a colorful oriole in a tree when by chance, noticed I was within 10 feet of a green heron blending with the leaf sheath of a fallen palm frond.
Green herons may hunt for food during the day or night. Chances are they won’t go hungry; they have several ways of capturing prey. Classified as a wading bird, they will hunt for food by walking slowly in shallow water. Rather than getting their feet wet though, they will perch close to the water atop vegetation or other handy supports where they intently stare, waiting for small fish to swim within striking distance then stab or snap the prey up in their long bill – a technique that labels them an ambush predator.
They also have a not so patient skill unique to only a handful of North American bird species that are considered smart and use tools. They will drop an insect, feather, twig, leaf or other object in the water and then snap up the small fish that come to investigate. Occasionally, they will make deep-water dives for prey and are able to swim back to the surface aided by the webs between their middle and outer toes. They also can hover briefly to catch prey.
Opportunistic feeders, their diet is mostly smaller fish, like minnows, sunfish, catfish, pickerel, carp, perch, shad, and silverside. They also eat crayfish, tadpoles, frogs, lizards, small snakes, large insects, earthworms, snails, leeches, dragonflies, damselflies, water bugs, spiders, prawns, grasshoppers, mice and other small rodents. Prey is usually swallowed whole. Large birds of prey may hunt adult green herons.
Unlike other herons that often nest in large colonies, green herons are solitary birds and prefer to raise their young in a secluded site; sometimes a few pairs will nest near each other.
Migrating green herons join resident birds for the winter along the entire edge of the Gulf of Mexico, others migrate on to points south as far as Venezuela, Panama and the West Indies.
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Websites helpful in compiling this article are Birdwatching HQ, Houston Audubon, Marinesanctuary.org, whatbird.com, abcbirds.org (American Bird Conservancy)