For the birds: St. Patrick’s Day — a green bird, for the luck of it

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Green Heron baiting for prey
Photo by Larry Engles
By Christine Southwick

What has green on its back and wings, short legs for its kind, and is one of the world’s few avian tool users?

If you said Green Heron, give yourself a pat on the back!

Green Heron about to strike prey
Photo by Mark Wangerin

Green Herons prefer to hunt from thick branches overhanging water where they often drop twigs, bark, feathers, bugs, berries, even bread into the water as bait to draw fish, frogs and other water creatures. With their bodies stretched out horizontally they quickly grasp or stab prey with their long dagger-like bills.

Because of their short legs, you won’t find these herons wading in deep water, but in shallow water near concealing vegetation. Matter of fact, unless you look closely, or come across a younger bird who doesn’t know better yet, you usually won’t find them out in the open at all. They prefer freshwater streams (Sammamish Slough has nesting Green Herons every year), ponds and marshes with woodland cover, and stay hidden within vegetation and thickets.

Green Heron with raised crest (alarm mode)
Photo by John Riegsecker

Being somewhat solitary, Green Herons don’t nest in colonies like their bigger relatives the Blue Herons. The male finds a secluded tree or bush with overhanging branches to conceal his often flimsy 8-12 inch wide nest, and after he pairs up, he delegates the rest of the construction to his mate. Whereas the nest is usually situated over water, it can be half a mile away and from the ground up to 30 feet above if habitat is poor.

Green Heron on preferred type of perch
Photo by Max Warner

Green Herons are considered moderate-distance migrators. Because they migrate in flocks late at night, and arrive here in late winter-early spring (and often unnoticed even when here), many people do not realize that most of our Green Herons leave in August after the breeding season to hunt in the coastal areas in southern Washington (with a few going as far as sunny Mexico), before returning to their breeding territory a few months later.

Three Green Heron juvies
Photo by Nancy J.Wagner Photography

Both parents brood their three to five eggs, and feed the nestling by regurgitating their catch. Their young start climbing out of the nest about 17 days after hatching, and start flying (fledging) at 21-23 days. The parents continue to feed their young usually for a month after they fledge.

So next time you are at a brushy stream, lake,  pond, or marshy area, look along the edges for a smallish slow moving Green Heron.


Anonymous,  March 17, 2016 at 7:14 AM  

Great photos and article.

Winston Rockwell March 17, 2016 at 10:18 AM  

Nice article. I spent many enjoyable hours last spring and summer photographing "greenies" along the edges of a local pond in Bothell, watching it as it carefully made its way through marsh grasses, fishing for minnows and what appeared to be oriental weatherfish. I probably collected well over a hundred images of this interesting bird foraging, eating, preening, and perching on branches as it watched the water for signs of prey.

Anonymous,  March 17, 2016 at 1:26 PM  

Does anyone know if Twin Ponds or Ronald Bog or Paramount Park open space hosts this bird?

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