Feathered Phantom

The secretive, beautiful green heron finds a summer home in these parts

By Susan Campbell

Think of a heron and a tall, lanky wader comes to mind. However, the green heron is quite a different animal! This stocky bird is about the size of a crow with relatively short yellow legs. But it does have a dark, dagger-like bill and a handsome, velvety-green back, dark cap and chestnut-colored body. And in true heron form, it moves slowly and deliberately, hunting in and around the water’s edge. Because of this slow-motion lifestyle, this bird is often overlooked. When it flushes from thick vegetation or croaks to advertise its territory might be the rare occasions that this bird gets noticed.

Green herons can be found through most of our state. Here in the Sandhills and Piedmont they spend the spring and summer months in all types of wet habitat. Not surprisingly, they feed on fish, amphibians and large invertebrates. They have even been known to grab hummingbirds from time to time! Very versatile hunters, green herons can dive and swim after prey if motivated. Moving through deep water is likely made possible by their natural buoyancy and partial webbing between their toes. Most remarkably, this is one of a very few bird species that actually uses tools. Individuals have been known to use worms, twigs, feathers, bread crusts and other enticements to lure small fish within easy reach.

Green herons are adaptable when it comes to breeding as well. A pair bond is formed between males and females from spring through late summer. The male will choose a spot and begin nest building early on. The female will take over and construct a platform of sticks that may be solid or quite flimsy. But the nest will always be protected, whether it is in a tree or large shrub. The clutch of three to five eggs is assiduously tended by both parents. Likewise, the young will be fed and brooded not only by the female but by the male as well. And for several weeks the heron family will stick together while the juveniles learn what it takes to survive.

You can expect to see green herons from late March into September. Most members of the population in the Eastern United States then head to the Caribbean and Central America in the fall. Even before this southward movement, individuals may wander in almost any direction, especially if food levels drop or water sources dry up. Individuals have covered very long distances. Surprisingly, a few have been observed as far away as Great Britain and France.

So over the next few months, if you scan the edges of wet habitat, you may be lucky enough to spot a green heron, hunched over with a long, sharp bill, staring intently into the water. Better yet, listen for a loud, catlike “skeow” or odd screaming that may give these somewhat secretive birds away. Should a bird fly, it may seem somewhat crow-like with slow wing beats, but its partially unfolded neck will certainly give it away.  PS

Susan would love to hear from you. Feel free to send wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com

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