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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Great Blue Prey

With the help of Seattle Audobon the Great Blue Heron was selected as the Seattle City Bird in 2003. 
The "S" shaped curve of the neck and head somehow seems appropriate.

Under the circumstances it makes sense that we should know a bit about what the Great Blue will eat. If you would like a fun challenge write down every type of Great Blue Heron prey that comes to mind. Today's blog will not contain the complete, exhaustive list of GBH prey, but hopefully you will find one or two surprises

Around Union Bay the Great Blues eat lots of fish.

When it comes to photography sometimes you have to take what you get. In this case the light is on the wrong side of the heron, however the sun glowing through the fish tail and the bird's beak could not be seen any other way.

They will also eat tadpoles, frogs and anything in between.

If given a chance the Great Blues will even eat insects.
On the south side of Union Bay a dragonfly flew a bit too close to a quiet, but hungry heron. Faster than the eye could follow the heron turned and trapped the fly. Then slowly the heron worked the dragonfly into the prime consumption position. All the while the dragonfly beat his wings like crazy, hoping for a last second reprieve.

Near Whidbey Island the Great Blues like saltwater fish just as well as the Union Bay Herons like freshwater fish.
Could that be a Sculpin?

Whether the fish are wide or skinny it does not seem to matter.

By the way have you ever wondered what their tongues look like?
Check out the bird on the right from a photo taken in Edmonds. (Clicking on the photo will allow you to see a larger version.)

Still the most interesting encounter between a fish and a Great Blue happened last spring at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge. My first thought was what is wrong with that heron?
The next thought was, Is that a growth under its neck? After a few moments it became clear the bird was trying to swallow something. The bird tried and tried, but it just wouldn't go down. Finally the bird spit up a 6" long fish that was nearly as tall as it was long. Before turning and walking away the heron struck out and stabbed the stubborn fish with its beak. As if to say, "I may not get to eat you, but you are not going to live to tell the story."

Still what I found to be the most surprising meal for a Great Blue Heron was seen this week near Stanwood, Washington. The heron was stalking through the tall grass, clearly hunting on land rather than in the water. Suddenly the heron struck. Its head disappeared below the grass and then popped up with a mouse.

The following video demonstrates what seems to be a consistent approach among herons. Prey is generally caught from behind or from the side but it seems to almost always be repositioned and swallowed head first.

The logical conclusion is, A Great Blue will eat any living creature, that fits down the pipe.

Have a nice day!


PS: Additional links sent in by readers include:

Thank you to CK Park,

You are right about their prey, which will also include rodents, small birds, and bullfrogs.  i've photographed them lunching on voles at ridgefield and, at juanita bay park, a norway rat and an incredible attempt at a full-grown salmon 

Like crows and gulls, they are nothing if not opportunistic and catholic in their tastes.

Thank you to John Riegsecker:

They will also eat snakes:

Nisqually Wildlife Refuge


The same day I saw the GBH at Nisqually I saw this American Bittern eating voles:


Odds and Ends:

My good friend and avid birder, Marcus Roening sent this link to a somewhat sad Snowy Owl story. Marcus says, "The title most likely doesn’t apply to all the owls we’re seeing, based on the number of owls that showed up and the same number were around all winter last year.  But, they are immature owls and definitely still learning the drill and some will never get it right."

Click HERE to read the story.

On another note, I just saw my first swan of the winter on Union Bay. It was swimming near the western one of the two new islands. The water level in the lake is as low as I can remember and it has exposed two flat, muddy islands that normally are under water. The birds seem to love them. The eastern island had two mature bald eagles sitting on it. While the other island had hundreds of birds of multiple species.


  1. Wow, lots of really great photographs in/linked from this post. My subscription to this blog got me out into the Union Bay area for the first time last weekend where I saw quite a few birds for the first time. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Excellent! I am glad you were inspired to get out and take a look. Did you visit the Union Bay Natural Area, Foster Island, The Arboretum or did you actually get out on the water? I ask because what you see all depends on where you look. :-)


    2. I was in the Union Bay Natural Area. I can't wait to go back, and also visit other areas around Seattle and Washington.

  2. A friend of mine claims to have seen a GBH eat a rat at Green Lake once. I have no reason not to believe him.

    1. Doug Schurman sent an email to say he saw one eat a salamander. The GBH menu is much larger than I anticipated. Thanks for the comment.

  3. I'm late to this post, but ...

    This falls into the fish category ... but it's a huge fish. :) Photographed this Great Blue catching and swallowing whole a catfish at Union Bay Natural Area last year: http://www.thewildbeat.com/2012/06/dear-catfish-the-heron-is-not-your-friend/

    1. Wow! What a fish and a nice set of photos!
      It is funny that you should have been on Union Bay photographing a yellow rumped warbler yesterday (3/4/13) while I was up at Edmunds photographing one. Hopefully, I will get a post done in a couple of days.