Harper the Great Blue Heron Just Crushed Her Fall Migration

The lanky wader flew nonstop over the open ocean from Canada to Florida in just 38 hours. Now she's living that island life.

Harper the Great Blue Heron doesn't have time for layovers. Geotagging data from this past week shows that the bird, tagged earlier this year in Maine, flew nonstop from New Brunswick, Canada to Nocatee, Florida between October 4th and early October 6th. The marathon flight over the open ocean took 38.6 hours and paralleled the eastern coast of the United States.

Harper is one of nine herons geotagged in Maine over the past three years by a project run through the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The initiative, led by wildlife biologist Danielle D’Auria, aims to better understand the behavior of Maine's Great Blue Herons and engage more people in wildlife conservation. The project's data is available to the public online, so any bird enthusiast can keep up with the herons in real time. 

"We’ve been working on understanding the statewide population for quite some time, primarily with the help of volunteers," D'Auria says of Maine's Great Blue Herons. "We've had about an 83 percent decline in nesting pairs just on our coastal islands, and so that prompted us to look at the state-wide level." 

While the solar-powered geotags were never intended to map the migration patterns of the herons, they have captured a wealth of data on multiple birds' journeys. "We didn’t even have a great idea of how far south our birds went before this project," D'Auria says. Sedgey, a Great Blue Heron who has since died, once flew for 20.6 hours nonstop from Maryland to southern Georgia. Another, named Nokomis, flies to Haiti every year and is likely on her way south now (her most recent geotag report shows her leaving the coast of Maine and heading out over the water).

With migration season well underway, many Great Blue Herons around the country are taking to the skies in search of warmer climates. While some of these birds are non-migratory, most make their way south to some extent during autumn, sometimes ending up as far as the Bahamas, Haiti, and Cuba.

Even within the Maine project's small sample size, Harper stands out for her impressive journey. "She really is the exception out of our six birds that we’ve seen migrate," D'Auria says. "A lot of them do stop along the way and take somewhat of a more inland path, or sometimes they’re out over the open ocean, but they duck in again to the coastline."

Harper's capture in spring 2019 was its own adventure. It involved a team of student volunteers in 6th-12th grade, a homemade bait trap stocked with minnows, and an early-morning tagging for which students slept overnight in their nearby school and woke up at 3:30 a.m. Soon after her release, D'Auria recalls that Harper surprised researchers by flying to Canada rather than staying in Maine, suggesting she belongs to a colony in New Brunswick rather than one local to the research area. Now, her journey of over 1,000 miles has earned her online acclaim from bird enthusiasts who are sharing D'Auria's Facebook announcement about the amazing flight. 

After her impressive trek, Harper the heron is enjoying a much-deserved break. Geotagging data on October 11th shows her in Cuba, having taken a brief rest in the Bahamas the previous day. As for where she's heading next, it's anyone's guess. With this being Harper's first tracked migration, her new fans will have to keep checking in to see where she settles for the winter.