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Species Spotlight: The Majestic Great Blue Heron Stalks its Prey in Western Riverside County

Feb 22, 2024 | MSHCP, Species

Look beyond the trees and into the wetlands, the freshwater marshes, riparian scrub, and woodlands – do you see that solitary bird wading in the water? This month, we follow the great blue heron (Ardea herodias) who feasts on nearly anything within striking distance, including fish, salamanders, frogs, small mammals and even other birds!

The great blue heron is a skilled hunter that is frequently found near natural floodplains like the Mystic Lake/San Jacinto Wildlife Area, and the Santa Ana River/Prado Basin which serve as ideal foraging grounds for this species. This majestic bird may patiently stalk voles and gophers among the fields or wade up to belly deep where it stealthily peers into any slow-moving, shallow water. Standing still or moving slowly, the heron waits patiently for unsuspecting prey. As prey approaches, it rapidly thrusts its bill, snatching up small prey with its strong mandibles (lower jaw) or skewering larger fish with its dagger-like beak. The great blue heron will often shake its catch to break or relax any sharp appendages before gulping them down whole.

Great blue herons share nesting grounds with waterfowl, hawks, owls, and vultures, demonstrating a harmonious coexistence with their ecosystem. They typically nest in trees, but will also nest on the ground, in bushes or on artificial nest platforms. Great blue herons are colony nesters, which can consist of several hundred nesting pairs, each and individual trees may host multiple individual nests. They are monogamous within a breeding season, yet flexible in their mate selection between years. Great blue herons will reproduce in their second season. In California, the courtship-to-egg-laying period typically spans from early January through mid-March.

Males and females have different nesting roles. Males will gather and present nesting material to the female who then weaves a platform and a saucer-shaped cup nest. Both sexes share the parental duties of incubation and nourishment. The young are fed regurgitated food and eventually eat whole fish dropped into their nests. Before taking flight from their nests, the young spend about 60 days learning to navigate their surroundings. Even after fledging, the nest remains a sanctuary for chicks as the parents continue to provide food for an additional three weeks, until they venture off on their own, with an average lifespan of 15 years.

Unfortunately, the great blue heron faces a substantial mortality rate of up to 70 percent within its first year of life, primarily due to starvation rather than predation. However, thanks to the MSHCP, at least 20,560 acres of land supporting suitable habitat for this species are identified for conservation in western Riverside County, providing a home for this magnificent species.