Observing Heron Nesting a Welcome Distraction

Keeping an eye on a nest during this pandemic.

One of the most exciting observations I made as a new birder was seeing a giant Great Blue Heron in a nest.

At a little over five feet tall, the Great Blue Heron is the largest North American heron, and birders generally observe them solitarily wading through shallow waters of rivers, ponds, and other wetlands stalking fish and other prey. But where do they nest? These goliaths of the heron world nest in trees, and they generally do so in colonies, not individually.

Great Blue Heron colonies can occur in remote areas or in green spaces in or near urban centers across much of the eastern and western United States, meaning that many birders can observe them and share a common experience, no matter their geography.

During the coronavirus pandemic and associated stay-at-home orders, I have begun observing a Great Blue Heron nest at a nearby park in Lakewood, Colo. as part of my outdoor (but socially-distanced) exercise routine. My observations are a welcome distraction. The nest I am watching is located 25 feet up in a dead tree on an island in the park’s center. It is part of a small colony of five Great Blue Heron nests and a closely associated colony of ten Double-crested Cormorant nests. A boardwalk and pavilion allow visitors to observe the colony easily—the park even erected a statue of Great Blue Herons. This year, I first noted a pair of birds on their nest in early March, and it appeared to me that they had begun incubating eggs. Great Blue Herons generally lay and incubate three to five pale blue eggs. 

Since then, I have made eight visits to the park, and during all but one visit, I have found either one or the other parent incubating the nest.  Males and females take turns incubating the eggs with their combined efforts stretching across nearly 14 hours every day.  Incubation generally lasts for approximately four weeks, so I am eagerly looking forward to seeing newly hatched chicks during one of my upcoming visits, and will hopefully be able to capture photos to share. After the chicks hatch, I will continue to monitor as these young birds—born weighing less than a robin—are fed by their parents until they are ready to stand after two weeks, flap their wings after four, climb around on nearby branches after seven, and permanently depart the nest after two to three months. 

During a period when the whole world seems to be standing still, watching the progress of this nesting pair has grounded me and shown that life is still moving forward. Their earnest efforts to renew life and the overall rebirth of life in spring have lightened my mood during a trying time. I hope that you can also find time to observe and find solace in the natural world—perhaps there is a Great Blue Heron colony nearby.

*Some of the natural history information came from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.