By: Jim Spencer
Watchable Wildlife – Herons and Swallows
Herons are wading birds that are typically found in shallow waters of ponds, lakes, marshes and beaches, where they forage for food. Great Blue Herons, often called Blue Herons, are gray long-legged waders that live in Austin year-round. During winter the resident birds are joined by some northerners escaping the cold.
Great Blue Herons forage both day and night. You may see them hunting in the open, standing stock-still until unsuspecting prey makes a mistake. Or they stand quietly in the shadows. Then in a flash, they grab the food which most often is fish, but also frogs, snakes, mammals, invertebrates, and even other birds. They swallow fish head first, sometimes spearing and shaking them beforehand to tenderize the scales. Almost all prey is swallowed whole. Watching a heron swallow food is quite an experience – you might wonder if it will get stuck in its throat or whether you’ll need to perform the Heimlich maneuver. (Don’t, if you value your eyesight.)
Great Blue Herons have had a rookery close to Red Bud Isle Park for several years, where several pairs nest colonially. They should begin to build their nests soon, high in the tall trees below the Tom Miller dam. Both parents will incubate the eggs and brood the young for several weeks. It is quite incongruous to see these 46 inch tall birds standing at their stick nests and tending their young.
A much more elusive heron in the Austin area is the Black-crowned Night Heron. They winter in Austin in very small numbers and are found intermittently during the breeding season. Where the Great Blue is long-legged and long-necked, the Black-crowned is short-necked, stocky and short-legged. It often tucks its neck in, which makes it look hunch-backed. During the day it perches hidden among leaves and branches at water’s edge, coming out at dusk and night to feed, true to its name. The adult Black-crowned Night Heron does indeed have a black crown. It also has a black back, gray wings and a white breast and belly. Its legs are yellow except at the height of breeding when they turn bright pink! Good places to look for roosting Black-crowned Night Herons are along Lady Bird Lake’s Holly Shores and below Longhorn Dam at Pleasant Valley Road in Roy Guerrero Park.
It’s Swallow Time!
Purple Martins have been seen at Giddings and Gonzales, first sighted there on January 26. They should be in Austin by the time you read this. These early birds are the fittest of the fit adult males, occasionally accompanied by some adult females. They arrive early to claim the best territories in human-provided housing. Martin landlords eagerly await their arrival. As the Purple Martin Lady of Virginia Avenue here in Austin says, “It is impossible to be unhappy in the presence of Purple Martins.”
Cliff Swallows are expected by the end of February. When Cliff Swallows return they will take a few weeks to refurbish old nests, and then get down to the business of raising young in mid-March. The highway and bridge underpasses, where they make their mud nests, will be teeming with life once again.