Tuesday, April 9, 2013


I recently learned of a Great Blue Heron nesting colony in Kenmore, Washington, only 10 minutes from my house. But the colony, at the edge of a park and ride lot, was at some distance from the vantage point, so it would take a long telephoto to get good photos of them. So I went up there with my new Canon PowerShot SX50 HS camera with its 50x zoom lens.

The colony has about 50 obvious nests, although not that many pairs were present during my two morning visits. Activity levels were low, consisting mostly of birds flying out to gather additional nesting material. But that activity had birds flying in with twigs and branches often enough to be photogenic, and a few birds even landed in the nearby Douglas-firs to tug on live branches. Otherwise the herons stood quietly at their nests.

The nests are reused for many years, birds sometimes changing nests between years. I don't know what happens when a bird chooses a nest and its previous owner returns soon thereafter! You do see sparring in the colonies.

Males procure the nest material and females remain at the nest to put it in place, and I saw numerous such exchanges. The sexes can't be distinguished, so all one can do is make assumptions that are supported by previous research. The first eggs should be laid in March, according to the literature, so presumably in early April some of the birds had clutches already. Indeed, some birds were flat on the nest, presumably incubating.

Copulation takes place both before and during egg laying, and one such act was observed during a two-hour visit. Both sexes incubate, alternating during the 24-hour period (females more at night), and the total incubation period is about 27 days. Hatching is asynchonous, as incubation begins when the first egg is laid, so the youngest bird may be several days younger than the oldest.

Once the eggs hatch, the young remain in the nest 7-8 weeks, so there will be plenty of photo opportunities to come. One thing I will be looking for is siblicide, where a young bird attacks and actually kills a nestmate. The prey is often dropped into the nest in the midst of the young, and especially when the items are small, the young are more likely to fight over them. When food is limited, it makes evolutionary sense for the brood to be reduced, so the remaining young will have sufficient food to grow and fledge.

Great Blue Herons have had a hard time of it in the Seattle area, as Bald Eagles, which have increased tremendously in recent years, visit their colonies as they are forming and take eggs, young or adults if they can catch them. A few such disturbances will usually cause the adults to desert the colony. They can either move elsewhere or just fail to breed. The next season they try again at another spot, and there is a fair likelihood that eagles will find that spot as well.

I keep hoping that the eagles won't destroy this colony. It has been established for a decade at least, so there is hope. On occasion, herons nest very near an eagle nest, and apparently that keeps other eagles away from the heron colony. I don't know why the resident eagle doesn't take its toll.

Dennis Paulson


Anonymous said...

beautiful photos and thanks for posting them!

Anonymous said...

I recently saw a colony's nest sight. I think it might be this group. Beautiful photos!