Photo by Michael B. Smith, some rights reserved. CC License 2.0

Great Blue Herons: Solitary and Amazing

By: Jack Russell, Message from the Cap’n

Message from the Cap’n is a compilation of fishing advice, waterman and weather insights, Chesapeake lore, and ordinary malarkey from the folks who keep their feet wet in the Potomac and St. Mary’s rivers.

Great Blue Herons are partially migrant birds.

We have Great Blue Herons in the Chesapeake Bay region year-round. So do numerous other locales in North America including the Pacific Northwest and south Florida. Herons living at the northern edge of their breeding range will migrate in winter. Some will fly as far south as the Caribbean.

“Most Great Blue Herons migrate to some extent, even if just a general movement away from the northern edge of their summer ranges,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds. “They usually go southward, but always head to where there is open water. Migration usually occurs mid-September to late October.”

Maybe that explains why, although our herons are visible, year-round residents, they become much more visible during the winter months. Perhaps we’re being visited each fall by more northern nesting herons.

On St. George Creek it seems Great Blue Herons appear in abundance after the Ospreys leave to overwinter in South America. These tall herons have an affinity for the empty Osprey nests where they regularly perch to oversee the happenings around the creek. They are majestic birds, weighing up to eight pounds. They attain a height of 36 to 54 inches and have a  wing span of almost 6 feet. They stand out, perched on top of an osprey nest.

This October provided a special treat for the herons on Island Creek. They found many minnows and small fish left in the yards by recent high tides. It is always fascinating to watch them slowly stepping along in the shallow water with their darting neck when fishing. Their cautious, calculated steps as they wade through the water are slow and controlled. They dart and capture a meal too quickly to see.

The Great Blue Herons of the Chesapeake traditionally build their rookeries in the tops of trees such as the pine tree forests around Lake Conoy at Point Lookout State Park which has a large and active rookery, sometimes called a heronry. Lake Conoy has much to recommend itself as a breeding colony, it is close to wetlands and open water. Herons prefer to hunt within a 2-mile radius. A good source of fish within 2 to 3 miles is important.

Great Blue Heron nesting season in the Chesapeake Bay region, occurs in March and April with two to seven eggs laid in two-day intervals. Both adults share the nesting duties and the eggs are incubated around 27 days. Chicks are born several days apart with the first born having the best chance for survival. The adult birds consume about four times the amount of food when feeding chicks than when laying eggs.

While both the male and female are active with the incubating and caring for young, Great Blue Herons are largely solitary birds. And they are  fastidious, plucking the downy feathers from their breast to remove slime and oil from their other feathers.

To learn about tours and trips into the Chesapeake, keep in touch with Fins + Claws on Facebook. Catch up on Messages from the Cap’n Member Page. Please visit Cap’n Jack’s lore and share with your social media sites. Or contact him at or 240-434-1385.

P.S. From the Interpretive Buoy System this week, the water temperature in the Lower Potomac is nearing 68 degrees and the salinity is holding at 15 PSU (practical salinity unit).

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