2017-08-12 / Outdoors

Wolf Tracks

Outdoor Columnist
Dave Wolf

Those aren’t dinosaurs you’re seeing around the ponds, streams and wetlands this time of year.

They may look like miniature pterodactyls, but they’re actually herons. Four heron species call Pennsylvania home. Three are in trouble.

The great egret, yellow-crowned night heron and black-crowned night heron are all endangered species.

Great blue herons are the only ones that are thriving in the Keystone State. A typical adult will weigh just five to six pounds, but will stand up to 48 inches tall, and can have a wingspan of up to 79 inches.

Herons nest in colonies, or groups, for the sake of protection. More birds on more nests mean more eyes to watch for predators.

Great blues typically prey on fish, reptiles, and amphibians by slowly stalking them in shallow water. They then strike with lightning speed, using their long necks and sharp bills.

But, they will also “go mousing” according to Patti Barber, endangered species biologist for the Pa. Game Commission.


Great blue herons such as this one are holding their own, but three other Pennsylvania heron species are endangered. Human encroachment has forced the birds to seek abandon their traditional food sources. 
Diana Haronis photo Great blue herons such as this one are holding their own, but three other Pennsylvania heron species are endangered. Human encroachment has forced the birds to seek abandon their traditional food sources. Diana Haronis photo “They’ll catch small mammals if they can,” Barber said. “They will eat whatever’s small enough to go down their throat, and that they can subdue.”

Recently, while visiting two different golf courses in the area, I was pleasantly surprised to see Great blues will sometimes overwinter in the state, if enough open water remains. If the bodies of water freeze, they’ll make the perilous migration south, traveling sometimes as far as the northern extremes of South America.

Having spent countless hours trying to photograph all four species, I’ve concluded that the blue seems to be the most cautious while night herons are the most secretive. Usually, when I have seen them in an area, I will sit and wait for them to return, knowing that sometimes they will.

Much like stalking deer, I move slowly and cautiously, keeping some sort of cover between me and the bird.

Capturing one in flight is even more exciting and over the years, and getting a good shot at a heron that has speared a fish is a great accomplishment. You have to be as patient as a heron. The species spends almost all of its time in pursuit of nourishment and its success rate isn’t as great as you might think.

Misses are far more frequent than hits. This explains why you don’t see them just resting very often.

Herons and other species of wildlife are indicators of good water quality. In Pennsylvania, we have seen them move when encroached upon by human development.

There are laws in place to protect water quality, preserve wetlands and otherwise prevent us humans from despoiling every wild acre of our beautiful state. Some of these are under attack.

We can only hope that our herons and other treasured wildlife will not be crowded out altogether. We would find a huge void without wildlife or the special places that sustain it.

(Dave Wolf can be reached by email at wolfang418@msn.com.)

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