What you see isn’t necessarily the whole picture.
It just doesn’t feel plausible that the Pacific great blue heron should be listed as a species at risk, but here we are. It’s a species of special concern, which in official parlance means that the barn’s not quite on fire yet—but we should be at least a little bit worried. And that worries me.
The Pacific great blue heron is as common as dust where I live. OK I’m exaggerating, but one of the great joys of moving to the west coast of Canada as a birder was discovering how widespread they are. And how approachable. See, I’m from Alberta where the herons are wary. I’m not sure why, but where I come from you can’t get within a few hundred metres of one before they flush. Here on the coast, you can practically reach out and scratch them on the chin.
And by common, I mean… we see them every time we walk down the road to the bay here on my island. We see them all over the tidal marshes of Tsawwassen and Boundary Bay. Heck, there’s a bustling nesting colony right in Stanley Park, and (off and on) in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.
Big trees, big nests, big eggs.
They are fascinating things to watch when nesting. It’s strange to see these huge, dinosaur-like creatures way up in the tops of the big trees, but that’s where they raise the babies. They lay huge blue eggs and take turns caring for them, one incubating while the other flies long distances to its favourite shoreline. They seem to have their preferred spots to hunt for fish, amphibians, invertebrates, and the odd small mammal. If you ever find yourself in Vancouver in nesting season, you really should check out the Stanley Park colony. Just be careful standing under the nests.
If you’re new to bird photography, they’re really rewarding. Big, beautiful, and calm, they don’t mind much if you spend a few minutes photographing them, as long as you don’t get too close (I was of course exaggerating about scratching them on the chin.)
Pacific great blue herons are vulnerable.
Why on earth did they get a species at risk designation? Well, this is the thing. For all that they’re super common here in southwestern BC, there aren’t too many of them anywhere else. Our subspecies, the Pacific one, is found only on our coast. It’s smaller than the continental great blue herons, non-migratory, and happens to live where there’s a ton of human development with all its attendant pollution and disturbance.
Pacific great blue herons lay four eggs typically, but only two survive to the nestling stage. And of those, only a quarter make it through their first winter.
Eagles are their major predator. I once witnessed a bald eagle attack on the heron colony in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, and the noise was horrifying. It sounded like a thousand people screaming for their lives—honestly I’ll never forget it.
Eagles aren’t the problem.
But eagles aren’t the real problem for Pacific great blue herons. As with species at risk everywhere, the issue is habitat. They need wild places.
I love these birds—not only because they’re beautiful photographic subjects. I value them because they remind me that what I see—an abundance of a particular species—isn’t necessarily the real picture. There probably aren’t more than 11,000 Pacific great blue herons on this planet, and they’re all vying for the same prime oceanfront property that people like me enjoy.
I for one am willing to make space for them.
Let me brighten your Friday.
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