Photographer Joel Appleman was watching a Great Blue Heron at the Montour Preserve’s Lake Chillisquaque on April 6 when a second one flew in from his right side.
“It was flying pretty low, so I figured he was going to land,” Appleman said. “Sure enough, he did, and I was ready when it happened.”
The result is a stunning image of the heron preparing to land in the lake, its legs outstretched and wings helping it come to a stop.
The Great Blue Heron is the most commonly seen member of the greater heron family because of its size and selected habitat, according to Montour Preserve outdoor educator Jon Beam.
“They are just so big, and when they come flying along, they look like some prehistoric creature with their big wings and slow, steady flight. It can be incredible to watch,” he said. “They are common along our rivers, lakes and ponds.”
The bird is so distinguished, it played a part in Carol Parenzan’s decision to start the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association in 2012.
“I was driving along the New York Thruway near Buffalo, weighing the pros and cons — and level of belly hunger to take such a leap — and there in the grassy median strip soon a heron staring at me as I drove past,” she said. “When I lived in the Adirondacks, a heron would join me most evenings at my meditation rock along the reservoir near our cabin. One day, as I was driving, she flew and guided me just inches from my car windshield for a couple of miles.”
This is why the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper logo includes a silhouette of a Great Blue Heron.
The species is also known to eat a variety of species, including frogs, salamanders, snakes and tadpoles — Beam even has seen them walking through fields looking for meadow voles.
“The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They definitely take advantage of what they can find.”
They also take advantage of learned behaviors to help them harvest their favorite dish — fish.
“One thing they do when hunting is wade into the water and partially open their wings. This causes a shadow on the water. The herons freeze in that position, and the shadow attracts fish,” said Beam. “Then the Great Blue Heron shoots its head out and spears unsuspecting fish with its bill, throws them up in the air and catches them, head-first, in its beak and swallows them whole.”
According to Beam, there are several other members of the greater heron family that can be found in the Susquehanna Valley.
Among them, the green heron, which hang around shallow areas of ponds or lakes.
“They are one of a few species that use tools to catch fish,” Beam said. “I learned recently that they often pick up inspects or pieces of bread they find laying around, drop them on the water and will wait for fish to come up for them before spearing the fish with their long, pointy beaks.”
While it is rarer to see an American Bittern — another member of the heron family — people tend to hear their unique sounds and wonder what is making that noise.
“They are nicknamed the water-pump birds, with a chunk-a-lunk sound that sounds like water going through a pump,” Beam said. “They tend to hang out in marshy areas where there are lots of cattails — an interesting fact about them is that if they feel threatened, they stretch out their necks and point their beaks straight up. The move exposes their necks, which are colored in shades of brown and tan that blend in amazingly well with a grouping of cattails.”
Another species tied to the herons that makes a brief visit to the region is the Great Egret — which are smaller and slimmer than Great Blue Herons and covered in all white feathers with a yellow bill and black legs.
“They nest in the southern Susquehanna region, but move up into our area usually in August through either September or October,” said Beam.
The Great Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, according to Beam, because of a tragic near-extinction experience.
“Breeding males get these fine plumes on their backs during mating season, and during the late 1800s, those feathers became fashion items for ladies’ hats,” said Beam. “Hundreds of thousands of egrets were killed for those feathers to a point where the species almost became extinct.”
Ultimately, the herons of our region provide a critical litmus test of the water quality we all depend on — they also play a key role in the aquatic ecosystem throughout our watershed.
To learn more about herons and other water-based birds, check out the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association’s Floating Classroom series aboard the Hiawatha Paddleboat in Williamsport this summer. More information and pre-registration is available at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org/Floating-Classroom.html
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.