Standing statue still or stalking prey with the tiptoeing pace of a cartoon burglar, the great blue heron is one of North Dakota’s most familiar wading birds, and the largest of North America’s herons.
Taller than a sandhill crane, with a wingspan of 6 feet or more, the great blue heron is mainly grayish, with a pale yellow bill. When the light is right, however, the bird’s blue plumage, as its name implies, is evident.
“When you see great blue herons from a distance, they look gray, but I was amazed at their colors when the light hit them right,” said Mike LaLonde of Bismarck.
LaLonde is the photographer behind all the shots in this photo spread. They were taken last summer south of Fox Island along the Missouri River. For nearly two months, LaLonde visited the herons almost daily, trying to get close and get the best photographs possible.
“There were four or five herons hanging around about every morning that I’d go out there,” said LaLonde, who taught photography part-time at Bismarck State College for about 35 years. “They were always in this marshy area where the water was shallow, maybe 6-8 inches deep. It was the perfect place for them to fish.”
The great blue heron is an excellent predator, wading slowly or standing seemingly motionless for long periods, waiting for prey to come within range of their long necks and blade-like bills. The birds’ main prey is small fish, but frogs, snakes, insects and small mammals make it onto the menu.
“It was so interesting to observe the birds and learn their habits, particularly when they were stalking fish in a very predictable way,” LaLonde said.
Herons harvest prey with quick strikes from their sharp bills, and swallow what they kill whole. Scientists report that some great blue herons have died choking on fish too big for their S-shaped necks.
On the wing, great blue herons are also unmistakable. The bird flies with slow, deep wing beats, its long neck curved into an S-shape, and its head hunched back into its shoulders.
Herons nest in colonies or small groups in nests high in trees. Both sexes share in the incubation, lasting about 28 days, of the three to seven pale blue eggs. The adult birds turn the eggs by rolling them with their bills once every two hours in an effort to keeps the eggs at an even temperature.
“I could never find where these birds were nesting, and I wanted to because I wanted shots of them on their nests,” LaLonde said. “Even so, I was happy just watching and photographing them wading in the shallows. They are fun birds to watch.”