Thursday, May 19, 2022
May 19, 2022

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The great blue heron: What to know about Seattle’s official bird and where to spot them

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A great blue heron sits patiently on a well-fortified nest in the trees of Seattle's Commodore Park, near the Ballard Locks.
A great blue heron sits patiently on a well-fortified nest in the trees of Seattle's Commodore Park, near the Ballard Locks. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Perhaps it’s appropriate that Seattle’s official bird, the great blue heron, makes a cranky, croaking sound when bothered by the proximity of people.

Plenty of the 4-foot-tall waders (with a 6-foot wingspan) are year-round residents of Western Washington. The region has many rookeries, including Marymoor Park, Commodore Park near the Ballard Locks, the Kenmore Park & Ride, and the 10th Street Boat Launch in Everett.

Right now, while it is their mating and hatching time, great blue herons can be a bit more protective of their personal space than at other times of the year.

“When they’ve decided that you’re close enough and they’ve had it, they fly away with a grumping sound as if to say, ‘I was minding my own business, and you had to come along and invade my space,’ ” said Whitney Neufeld-Kaiser, a Western Washington birder who teaches classes on how to identify birds by song.

The sound of their giant wings flapping slowly as they take to the air is more distinctive in many ways than their vocalizations, she said. Many of us have likely heard the grumping and the clicking, clapping noises juveniles make when competing in the nest for food, even if we didn’t realize that’s what the sound was.

The bill clacking of juveniles “is a rattly clattering sound, like people clapping sticks together,” Neufeld-Kaiser said. “You’ve probably heard it but didn’t know what it was.”

The cry of adults is more like the croak of a frog or the sound of a weed wacker that won’t quite start than that of a songbird, she said.

The mating season of the serial monogamists — they take a new partner each year — is long and drawn out, lasting from January to July.

“It’s long because they are large and because they don’t return to the colony and get it on and lay eggs immediately,” Neufeld-Kaiser said. “They have to find a suitable partner.”

Here are some things to know about great blue herons, according to the Seattle Audubon:

  • Adult great blue herons can appear immense in the air. They are mostly a slate gray, with chestnut and black accents, and very long legs and necks. Adults sport a shaggy ruff at the base of their necks. Young birds are less colorful and have streaked necks.
  • They inhabit both salt- and freshwater throughout the state and are tied to water for their food: a variety of fish, frogs, small mammals, insects and reptiles.
  • Unlike many of Washington’s heron species, great blue herons do not leave our region in the winter. This is in part due to their flexible diet.
  • Herons are typically solitary in their feeding habits and will territorially protect their feeding grounds. In places of great abundance, however, they tend to be more flexible in their spacing.
  • Great blue herons nest in colonies called rookeries or heronries that are established near readily available food. Their nests are typically built high in trees, near the top, and are mainly constructed of sticks.
  • While adult birds have few natural predators, young birds face high mortality rates. Many larger birds and raccoons are common predators of eggs and the young. In some cases, herons will abandon colonies when disturbed, particularly during the early phases of nesting behavior. This has become an issue in Washington, where bald eagle numbers have increased, negatively impacting heronries with higher regularity.

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