Bird of the Week: Green Heron

Photo by Daniel VanWart

Let me introduce you to the Green Heron, my favorite bird. The few times I’ve mentioned this fact to my friends after we spot one wading in the reeds or flying overhead they look at me.. puzzled. That’s because at first glance or from a distance, these birds look drab and unremarkable in every way. Only when you slow down and look closer you’re rewarded with their gorgeous plumage. Rich green-ish blue wings, each feather carefully outlined with a glint of gold; chestnut-maroon necks, a bold navy blue head and a splash of mustard coloring their legs! A tasteful palette– one I may have chosen myself if Creator bothered to ask. But I digress.

Here in Central Texas we’re likely to see them most frequently in summer, wading in the shallows alongside tree-lined creeks, rivers, or ponds. For several years now, a small group has chosen the stand of trees right next to the Vic Mathias Auditorium Shores bathrooms along the Lady Bird Lake trail as their nesting site in early-mid summer. This is typical, as they nest in isolated pairs or groups close to water where they hunt.

Like other herons, their menu options are mostly watery creatures– small fish, frogs, crayfish, and the like. But take a moment to consider the visual acuity and precision involved in this process: imagine catching a minnow just below the surface, with a pair of tweezers (and then gulping down a slimy, wriggling fish whole.. without teeth!) Identifying exactly where an object is below the water is challenging enough, taking into account the glare and movement at the surface of the water. Beyond that, minnows are speedy little guys, so there is no room for error.

But the Green Heron has a few tricks up her sleeve. For one, her weird, spindly legs that look exactly like reeds or branches from a fish’s perspective. And for two, her smarts: Green Herons are one of the few birds known to use bait to lure their prey close enough to the surface to catch them! If you watch closely (and have the patience of a saint), you might get lucky enough to witness a heron tossing a twig, leaf, or live insect into the water to do just that.

Which brings us to the third trick up her sleeve: infinite patience. This is perhaps the real reason that Green Herons are my favorite birds. When I have the time and mental fortitude and I spot a Green Heron slinking along the riverbanks, I make myself stop and just sit there. Sit there, completely still, just watching. Waiting, with her. Marveling at the fact that this is the pace at which this bird lives her entire life, doing just this. Looking, observing, fishing, patiently waiting, striking and occasionally- eating. A few times I’ve been lucky enough to witness that split second between the time a fish is caught and swallowed. In that moment, I share in the thrill of success, of satiation. Satisfied, I pack up my binoculars and continue on my way, noticing that the pace of her life is infectious; that she is teaching me patience.

By Abby West.

Sources: The Clever Way Green Herons Lure Prey  and Audubon Guide to North American Birds