The Herons of Ontario

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Herons are such an interesting species of birds. With massive bodies, impressive wing spans and long wading legs, they aren't necessarily what we expect when we think "bird". They are striking in many ways and we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to observe multiple heron species here in southern Ontario. It really is a sight to see, a sizeable bird with long wading legs flying. Herons mesmerize us. 

Great Blue Heron in flight. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

Let's run though some heron species you may spot in Ontario: 

1. Great Blue Herons: One of the most commomly observed and a favourite of many, these birds are striking and are often spotted near bodies of water ranging from lakes to backyard ponds. Great Blue Herons enjoy eating nearly anything they can get their beak on or into- they catch fish, amphibians species, insects, small mammals and even other birds. Depending on the food type they may spear it with their sharp bill or grab it with their equally strong mandible. 

Great Blue Heron. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

Some are surprised to learn that Great Blue Herons nest in trees. Many of us (myself included) have never seen a Great Blue Heron nest, which can be over 6 km from feeding areas, and are purposely hidden away in isolated swamps or wetlands or even on islands. They nest in colonies that can include hundreds of individuals. 

Look for Great Blue Herons hunting alone at waters edge. And look carefully! For such a large bird they blend incredibly well into their surroundings. 

2. Black Crowned Night Herons: commonly found in wetlands, Black-crowned night herons are more compact than larger Great Blue Herons, and have a more "hunchback" appearance. They also nest colonially. They are considered opportunistic and will eat a wide range of foods including amphibians, insects, fish and other small mammals. Instead of stabbing their prey, they tend to grasp with their strong bills. Due to the fact that they are a smaller heron, you may be more likely to spot them closer to dusk or dawn when competition is lower at popular feeding locations. Check out your local marsh or wetland! Their plumage changes quite drastically from juveniles to adults, as you can see in the photos below. You will notice is that their bright red/orangey eyes are a constant. 

Black-crowned night heron. Adult. Photo by Shayna Hartley 

Black-crowned night heron. Juvenile. Photo by Heather Kerrison 

3. Green Herons: Green herons are also smaller, more compact herons. Distinguishable by bright yellow legs, striking  green and chestnut coloured plumage and piercing yellow eyes. They hunt in wetlands, both spearing and grabbing at a wide range of prey including everything from fish to insects to amphibians. They are often spotted throughout the day at wetlands, marshes, swamps and creeks. An important tip is to look for these herons where the water is more shallow, as their legs are not as long as others species. Although they can nest in colonies, it is more common to find solitary nests. Oh- and don't forget to look up! As they are frequently spotted perched in trees. 

Green Heron perched in tree. Photo by Shayna Hartley. 

4. American Bittern and Least Bittern: Due to their streaky, brown appearance, American Bitterns can hide in plain sight.. and they can do it well.  You may not have seen one, but you've likely heard them. Bitterns are well known for their booming, gulping and clacking calls. These herons are carnivores and stick to a diet of fish, amphibians and insects. They are mainly found in freshwater marshes and stick to shallower, less dense areas than Least Bitterns. Similar to other species, such as owls and kingfishers, ingestible parts are regurgitated as pellets. One of the most notable behaviours of American Bitterns is the display they make when threatened, where they straighten their neck upright and sway in the breeze, their streaky markings allowing them to blend in with the reeds.

Least Bitterns are often heard and .. not seen. It can be difficult to locate them in the dense reeds that they prefer. They display similar streaky markings down their chest and have a similar threat display to American Bitterns. Alike most other herons, they feed on a range of fish, amphibians and insects. Least Bitterns are markedly smaller than their counterpart, American Bitterns, and can be seen holding onto reeds. Look for them at dusk or dawn in densely vegetative wetlands. 

American Bittern. Photo by Leanne Leblanc. 

Least Bittern holding onto reeds. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

5. Great Egret: Last but not least! Great Egrets are striking and elegant. Albeit slightly smaller than Great Blue Herons, they are large and impressive birds with expansive wing spans. Throughout the breeding season they nest in colonies, located in trees and shrubs nearby wetlands including swamps, marshes and even lakes. They have a noticeable green area surrounding their eyes and bright, white plumage making them far easier to spot than other herons. During breeding season you will notice long feathery plumes on their back, used in courtship displays. 

Great egret, courtship plumes visible. Photo by Heather Kerrison. 

Right now is a great time to see some of these species as they are on the move and fuelling up, head out to your local wetland or marsh and see what you can spot. They make wonderful photograph subjects and are such a pleasure to watch wade, fish and forage. 

We surely will miss them when they're gone! 



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