The Pacific Great Blue Heron: An Uncommon Majesty

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.

closeup Pacific great blue heron
Beacon Hill Park

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.

Closeup Pacific great blue heron
Modern dinosaurs.

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.

Great blue heron standing in snow
Non-migratory even when the snow falls.

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.

pacific great blue heron
That breeding plumage.

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.

waterfront scene Vancouver with birds, freighters, and kayakers
Busy bay.

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9 thoughts on “The Pacific Great Blue Heron: An Uncommon Majesty”

  1. Thanks, Don, for this exquisite piece on one of my favourite favourite (it deserves TWO favourites!) birds. Truly, I never see one and not recall the line from the Wolf Project “The heron lifts its wings in flight…” I, too, have noticed great fluctuations in numbers across this land….especially, sadly in PEI. There’s a strip of asphalt near Summerside called “Blue Heron Way” and almost all of the herons have moved out of that area….the salt marshes have become smaller and smaller and I always question the toxins that are placed into potato fields. That’s another story entirely. In the meantime, I, like you, will continue to make space–happily–for this stunning creature. Thanks for your words, pal, and hugs from the dam.

  2. It is an amazing article about herons. Thank you, Don, that you share these wonderful pictures with us. I am waiting for your new pictures and stories.

  3. I live in La. very close to Miss. Gulf Coast. We see these birds all the time. I love them and enjoyed this article. Thanks

  4. I saw two GBHs today in Kelowna. Might they be Pacific Blue Herons? How do we distinguish the Pacific strain from other GBHs? By location only?
    Thanks for your article on these awesome birds.

    • They can wander but generally anything east of the coastal mountains will be the continental subspecies “herodias” and not the Pacific one. Interesting that you saw them this time of year- those birds are normally migratory.

  5. I live in central New York so cannot observe these beautiful birds in person although i did see 2 last time i visited cousins in Vancouver. We do see great birds out here, many migrating back and forth from Canada like the snow geese which land right on the lake we live on . Your photos are fantastic

  6. there were hundreds of great blue herons nesting at the entrance of the Tsawwassen ferry causeway east side just past petro can. Anyone know if this colony is still there? Absolutely stunning.


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