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VOLANT, Pa. – On Tuesday March 21, the Tweetspeak team ventured to Black Swamp and the Volant Straight to identify birds that live near marshes and water. The weather was mid 40’s and partly cloudy. The site has multiple entrances to get an up-and-close view of the marsh and the birds that swim on and fly above the water. Most of the surrounding area is private property. We had to be careful not to trespass and upset any potential neighbors of the swamp. While looking out in the sky, a large bird caught my attention. I saw a large bird with very long legs soaring high through the sky. It is much larger than a crow with a long extended neck. After checking my Field Guide, I identified the bird as a Great Blue Heron.

Characteristics

The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in all of North America with a long neck, long legs, and a thick knifelike bill.

  • They range from 3 to just over 4 feet with a wing span over 5 feet!
  • The bird has a blue-gray appearance from a distance and has a black stripe that goes above the eye.
  • The heron has dark blue primary and secondary feathers. The primary and secondary feathers are the asymmetrical feathers that extend out the most and help the bird with thrust and lift.
  • One can observe them almost anywhere in the United States near a marsh, open coast, river, or lake.

Flight

Looking at the heron fly, there are a few things some of the team noticed.

  • The Great Blue Heron extends its legs straight back during flight. The birds’ legs are so long that they go far beyond the tail and cannot be missed. I wondered about why the legs do not just point down rather than straight back. Many birds fly and their legs just relax and point towards the ground. There is not much research done on why but, using my judgment, I would say it is for aerodynamics during flight.
  • The bird tucks its neck in an S-shape towards the body. According to Backyard Biology, “Even though retracting the neck inward might increase the amount of drag during flight, due to the larger surface area meeting the air mass, herons and egrets have maximized the lift the wings provide with their low body weight and large wing area.”
  • The heron flies with slow, hard wingbeats. Due to such a low wingload (see chart), the heron can continue to stalk for pray while using very little energy flying over marshes.

Foraging

As mentioned earlier, the heron eats fish. The way they catch the fish is by being extremely patient. They will stand/wade in the water for long periods of time and wait for a fish to get close enough to them. All About Birds says, “Thanks to specially shaped neck vertebrae, Great Blue Herons can quickly strike prey at a distance.” Once within striking distance, they bird will bend down, strike its beak with lightning speed and jab into the water head first in attempt to clamp onto a fish. If successful, the bird will swallow it whole and continue the hunt. According to All About Birds, “Great Blue Herons can hunt day and night thanks to a high percentage of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes that improve their night vision.” Due to this, the heron can surprise the fish when they are not expecting an attack from an out-of-water predator. The bird can also enjoy a late night snack like most humans enjoy!

To see the heron in action, click the link!

Brandon Rossier and Connor White

Besides the Great Blue Heron, the team was successful in identifying at least 8 other species of birds:

  • Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Hooded Merganser
  • American Coot
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Red-winged Blackbird

In my beginning birding experience, I enjoy observing and identifying large birds. The large birds seem rarer to the area based on food source and climate. With fewer foraging resources than tropical areas, smaller birds seem to be more prominent in the area. In addition, the larger birds are more exciting to me with their predatory skills and how majestic they can soar through the sky. Overall, the team seemed like they had a very successful birding!

 

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