The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is our bird of choice for this month’s “Dunes in Flight.” This heron’s range is extensive across North America, and several individuals may be spotted throughout the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Complex on any given day, particularly near bodies of water. They appear blue-gray with a wide black stripe over the eye. Primary flight feathers are a deep blue, while the forewing is pale or gray. Its wingspan is about 6 feet, and despite being up to 4 feet tall, it is a relatively lightweight bird at around 5 lbs.
These birds hunt by wading in shallow fresh and salt water, slowly searching for unsuspecting creatures to prey upon. While their body movements are slow and calculated, they can strike their spear-like bills at lightning speeds. The “S” shape in their neck allows them to strike very quickly and creates a more aerodynamic form while flying. They hunt almost any prey within striking distance, including: fish, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and other birds. They quickly grab and swallow smaller prey, but will spear larger fish with their powerful beaks. The frayed feathers on their chests are helpful for cleaning off fish slime and oils as they preen. They have excellent day and night vision thanks to a high amount of rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes.