Herons, egrets and bitterns are a few of the many species of wading birds belonging to the family Ardeidae. All of the members of this family have similar physical characteristics including straight dagger-like bills that they use to capture prey with quick lunging strikes; long flexible necks; slender heads and bodies; and, long stilt-like legs for wading. Sibley identifies four species of herons and bitterns whose home ranges could include White Lake but we have only been able to spot and photograph two species.
The most common at the cottage is the great blue heron (Ardea herodias). This species is the easiest to spot and identify as it is the largest of the herons, weighing up to 2.4 kilograms and standing 110 to 130 centimeters tall with its neck extended, and has a distinctive grey-blue body with a black cap and crest.
Individual birds can often be seen standing motionless in shallow water near the shore line where they are hunting for a meal.
They are easily disturbed if you paddle nearby, in which case you will likely observe their graceful and slow departure as they fly away on their long wings with their neck folded back and their long legs trailing behind. We love this iconic silhouette of the great blue heron.
The great blue heron’s wings span from 160 to 195 centimeters. Their exit is often accompanied by a deep, hoarse croaking sound.
Great blue herons feed primarily on small fish which they catch in shallow water. We were entertained on one occasion when a heron stabbed a large catfish on our shoreline and then took several minutes, and numerous false starts, to manoeuver the fish head-first into its bill so it could swallow the substantial meal whole. They are also known to eat insects, crayfish, frogs and snakes.
The other species we have observed at the cottage, and just this year managed to photograph successfully, is the green heron (Butorides virescens). This smaller heron can weigh up to 210 grams, and stands 40 to 55 centimeters tall when its neck is extended. It has a dark green back, tan breast, chestnut face and neck with a black crest on the top of its head.
This solitary and secretive bird usually hunts for small fish, insects, small amphibians and crayfish in the dense vegetation of marshes and lake margins.
We continue to keep an eye out on our outings hoping to spot the American bittern and the black-crowned night heron. Two good sources of information include the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and the Lorimer Field Guide to 225 Ontario Birds.