The Great Blue Herons Are Back

They’ve made it through the worst of the weather. Better times should be on the way.

Every spring, dozens of Great Blue Herons return to their rookery on the Mississippi in Minneapolis. Except it’s not really spring, yet, when the males arrive to claim nest locations and start building – it’s still plenty cold and wet. This March was especially rough and there were a few days when I worried they wouldn’t all make it.

But now it’s the middle of April and things look pretty good, despite the wind an occasional light snow. The birds have chosen their mates and are building solid nests. It’s mainly the males who collect the branches and sticks while the female stacks, weaves and pokes them into a surprisingly durable structure.

Great Blue Herons photograph

There’s a good vantage point from the high bank of the Mississippi, but it’s not really close. I’m using a Tamron 15-600 telephoto zoom – all the way out at 600mm – plus a Tamron 1.4x teleconverter. Despite a focal length of over 800mm, and an APS-C sensor “effectively” increasing it further, I still can’t nearly fill a frame. But the distance, and the bit of river that intervenes, mean the birds are undisturbed.

This fellow is proudly returning home with a really big branch – hopefully he makes it all the way this time and doesn’t drop it in the river.

Blue Heron with stick for nest.

His 6 foot wingspan has to lift just few pounds, so he glides gracefully through the trees and alights weightlessly on a branch. He presents the twig to his female partner, who will incorporate it into the nest. It’s an oddly formal interaction. You get the feeling that the male is proving his worth, and the female needs to inspect and approve each piece of material. Maybe she has an idea of what sort of stuff she needs next.

blue heron photograph

Obviously the pair needs to convince each other that they’re worth this investment and will do their part in all the work to come. The eggs incubate for about a month, and the young won’t leave the nest for up to three months after that. The parents will share the tasks of keeping the eggs warm and feeding the young, alternating nest duty with hunting for fish in the river.

blue heron parents

It’s a committed working partnership. And next year, with luck, they’ll do it all again – but probably with different partners. The relationship ends with each season and as they fly south they’ll go their separate ways.

Today, on a cold day in April, this pair can face the future with some degree of confidence. They know the plan, trust each other, and should be able to handle the challenges ahead.

Pair of Great Blue Herons

4 Replies to “The Great Blue Herons Are Back”

  1. Lovely photos, and I love your description of the courtship and nestbuilding rituals! We don’t get to see that down here in Florida, although we do have sandhill cranes that stay here year-round.

  2. Good read. Very informative. The images and text support each other well.

    The GBH is a year round resident here in coastal North Carolina. They seem to thrive here. We have many. They are, at least in my experience, one of the tougher members of the Egret family to get close to. Of course you were wise to avoid disturbing them as they prepare to nest regardless of how tolerant they are.

  3. I love your series of Great Blue Herons photographs, with a lot of good backstory information. We have one in our neighbor that I have yet to capture because I have no long lens. Probably an excuse to buy one, but the wife wouldn’t be happy.

  4. Tough life these birds have! Beautiful pictures. Bird photography is tough, I don’t even try.

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