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Bird Photos Great Blue Heron Preening

Updated on September 5, 2012


Anyone who knows me, knows that I love bird photography. Unfortunately, I don't have the best camera for this hobby though I do try to make the most of what I have.

On a recent walk and training session down by the Ochoco Creek in my hometown of Prineville, Oregon, I was just heading back to the car with my dogs when I thought I'd take a peek over the bridge and see if there just might be a Great Blue Heron fishing.

I was thrilled to see that as the sun faded in the late afternoon sun, there he or she was, fishing at first just off the edge of the creek. Sending my dogs on with my husband, I whipped out the only camera I had on my person to document this wonderful site, my Nikon CoolPix.

For more pictures including nesting Great Blue Herons, visit my photography website at



Unfortunately, I was too far away to do the bird justice. It was a spectacular little slice of time that I stood there watching him fish first from the shore, then finally diving into the water and swimming like a duck. I have posted that picture on here as well just because it was such an interesting thing to see. I had read about Great Blue Herons swimming but had never actually seen one doing it!

Hoping against hope that my pictures would be sufficient to enlarge them but happy that I had at least seen one of my favorite birds fishing in such a tranquil setting, I headed for the car to catch up with my husband and the dogs. Just as I began to leave, my fine-feathered friend took off and decided to sit atop the nearest telephone pole to begin his preening behaviors.

I literally ran back to the car, grabbed my more powerful SLR Nikon and drove back to the parking lot as fast as I could. What ensued was a full hour's worth (at least) of watching this young Great Blue Heron go through all the gyrations of his preening behavior.

I started out quite far away and was able to advance slowly and cautiously ever closer to him until I was some ways away from him but shooting up against the sky. He did not seem to be bothered by my maneuvering as he never went to an erect posture except to preen.

It was a fantastic experience and one I will never forget. I only wish I had gotten better pictures of him flying off his perch or that I could have stood there longer. I did not use a tripod so it is a miracle that my 200 pictures all came out almost to a one without motion artifact.

I did return about 5 days later and think it probably was the same bird sitting atop the telephone pole. He again took off though before I was ready though I caught some of him flying. I go back every day or so to try and recapture him again as he seems to routinely visit the creek at this spot and also this particular telephone pole!




Periodically he ruffled and stood ------(Click on images for larger view)
Periodically he ruffled and stood ------(Click on images for larger view)
Fluffed and stood
Fluffed and stood
Pecked and rummaged
Pecked and rummaged
And stood some more
And stood some more
And stood looking bewildered
And stood looking bewildered
And cleared his throat
And cleared his throat
Then acted like he would fly away
Then acted like he would fly away
Only to stand and ruffle some more
Only to stand and ruffle some more


For those of you who do not know much about this magnificent bird, let's review some of the particulars that makes this bird so unique.

  • Great Blue Herons generally reach about 4-1/2 feet in height and are the largest heron in North America
  • They have a wingspan of at least 6 feet, usually closer to 6-1/2 feet or more
  • For such a huge wingspan, they remarkably only weigh between 5 and 8 pounds
  • Males are generally indistinguishable from females
  • They are almost prehistoric in their appearance with huge beaks, long, long legs and gigantic wings
  • Great Blue Herons are distinguishable as they fly by the slow, long flaps of their wings as they cover great distances quickly usually clocked at about 20-30 mph
  • It is thought that herons date back to the 18th century
  • If a Great Blue Heron survives its first year of life, it can live to be 15 years old but the average is about 8 or so
  • Great Blue Herons are monogamous during the year of their breeding but will seek out a new partner the following year unless they found the relationship mutually rewarding
  • Adults have the shaggy ruff at the base of their throat - that's what makes me think Henri is a youngster. Youngsters also have a dark crown with no plumes or ruff but a mottled neck
  • The sound that a Great Blue makes is a sort of raspy croak though the young reportedly sound like mini-lawnmowers



Great Blue Herons are said to be one of the most adaptive of birds simply because they have evolved into being able to survive in all kinds of places.

They are usually found along waterways but they are not particular. They are found in salt water areas such as along the ocean but also found in marshy areas, wetlands, along rivers, ponds and lakes. They are also quite common here in great numbers at the oxidation ponds where they even nest.

Females are said to feed closer to their nesting areas while males venture further away but that has not been proven to be entirely accurate as the environment changes and urbanization forces more changes on this bird.

The Great Blue is a carnivore and depending on the time of year, also makes do with a variety of foods.

There are many videos on the Internet of Great Blue Herons consuming a variety of things, some of which were a surprise to me. Some of their favorites:

  • Fish
  • Small amphibians such as frogs and water snakes
  • Voles
  • Mice
  • Land snakes
  • Rabbits
  • Smaller birds
  • Turtles
  • Fish eggs
  • Insects
  • Gophers



Great Blue Herons have a certain style with which they catch their prey which doesn't really vary much whether on land or by the water. They are usually shallow waders if by the water and employ a "stalk and wait" approach to gathering their food.

They step forward with one foot and angle their heads to best see their prey, extend their long necks, and then at the moment of reckoning, spear their powerful beaks in one quick thrust to grab their target. They crush the object of their desire with their beak or wobble it back and forth to break the spine, and then in one terrific gulp, swallow their prey whole. It slides down the long S-shaped curve of their neck in one gulp.

However, occasionally Great Blue Herons miscalculate and are known to choke to death by attempting to swallow something that will not fit.

Nesting Great Blue Herons, both male and female, hunt for their young, digest the food they swallow and then regurgitate it for their offspring.



Great Blue Herons have enormous nests. They measure at least 12 inches thick and 25-40 inches in diameter.

They begin getting ready to nest by pairing up with a mate sometime between August and January. Usually by mid January, the process has begun and the herons return to their previous nests. If they do not have a previous nest, they begin the process of taking over an abandoned nest or building a new one.

Late February through March they begin actively constructing or refurbishing the nest carrying huge twigs and sticks to the tops of trees.

Heron nesting areas are called rookeries or heronries. While they usually fish solo, Great Blue Herons nest in colonies. At times they can have 400 breeding pairs in one area. However, as urban sprawl takes more and more of the habitat for this bird, studies show that they are now starting to nest in 30-40 pair colonies.

Occasionally, a misplaced pair will also construct a nest in uncommon places such as stadium lights or sides of buildings. They are adaptable but the chances of their brood surviving considerably decreases in such urban settings.

Herons are notorious for not liking the encroachment of man. Laws are in place to protect many heron rookeries from any urban development being closer than 1000 feet of the near edge of a colony. Herons have been known to abandon entire colonies when their nests are disturbed or if people or predators get too close.

Mid April, the herons are usually sitting on their nests. Both male and female incubate the eggs, which are usually 3-7. However, the female can lay an egg every few days so consequently the chicks may hatch at different times. The strongest and oldest usually survive and in a typical clutch, there will be 2 or 3 who survive.

Early June to late August, the chicks will generally be about 60 days old. They are now the size of their parents but without any of the skills. They are literally forced from the nest into flying behaviors and fishing behaviors in order to survive. They have about 2 weeks to become self-sufficient or they perish.

While, as stated above, Great Blue Herons do not mate for life, there is evidence that proves that a pair of herons who have had success raising their brood and who work well together will continue their relationship to the next year.

Herons generally have one clutch of chicks per year but if a pair of herons are unsuccessful or have a failed clutch such as losing the eggs to a predator, they will try again that year.



Preening is a breeding behavior among birds. However, as well as being part of the mating ritual, it is necessary to the bird's survival.

Covering any bird are thousands upon thousands of feathers. On the Great Blue Heron, it is no different. Each and every one of these feathers has to be smoothed out and laid flat in order for the bird to maintain body heat or properly cool itself and as well provide the means for its flight.

While it may look like digging for bugs when a Great Blue Heron preens, it is really the art of nibbling each individual feather back into place. It also does facilitate them ridding themselves of bugs and parasites but overall, the behavior is to ensure that each feather is in top working condition.

Almost all birds have uropygial or preen glands. This is located at the base of the tail. The purpose of this gland is to secrete an oil that the birds smooth over their own feathers to keep the feathers from drying out.

It is my guess that the young heron who I playfully nicknamed "Henri" (for Henry or Henrietta since it is not obvious), did such an extensive preening because he had literally immersed himself in the creek when he dove in and swam.

As you can see in the pictures, the herons also use their feet to scratch and clean their heads while they use their beaks on the rest of their feathered parts.

At one point, Henri became headless as he stuck his entire head underneath himself to preen the feathers underneath him.

It's a remarkable sight as well to see them contort and turn this way and that to get at all the individual feathers, then ruffle up their eyebrows and puff out their necks and body feathers to shake them all into alignment again.



Stretching to preen the back
Stretching to preen the back
Pausing to look about
Pausing to look about
Ruffling once more
Ruffling once more
Waggling his big eyebrows
Waggling his big eyebrows
Getting to the neck of the matter
Getting to the neck of the matter
Standing and resting
Standing and resting
Scrunching up ready to scratch
Scrunching up ready to scratch
Prelude to the scratch
Prelude to the scratch
The scratch
The scratch
Balancing act getting his leg back down
Balancing act getting his leg back down
One legged balancing act
One legged balancing act
Wingspan as he rolled off into flight
Wingspan as he rolled off into flight
Bye for now, Henri
Bye for now, Henri



There are two different theories raised as to why herons in particular stand on one leg at any given time. However, this behavior is not isolated to Great Blue Herons by any means as many different bird species regularly stand on one leg.

In the case of the Great Blue Heron, it is said that this behavior minimizes heat loss. Arteries in the bird carrying warmed blood into the legs are in close contact with the veins that return colder blood to the heart of the bird. So theoretically, the arteries warm the veins and by standing on only one leg, the bird reduces one half of the amount of heat lost through his legs which have no feathers to keep them warm.

Likewise, it is said that in the case of crane-like birds, they employ one-legged stances when fishing as it creates a shadow or a lack of shadow. The prey may or may not be fooled by this but it appears to work well enough that they regularly employ it.

It is also further surmised that their legs are so gnarled looking that prey may mistake one leg for a branch or a twig and not realize the clear and present danger of the beak looming above them.



He flew at me before I was ready!
He flew at me before I was ready!



Hopefully, the Great Blue Heron will be around for decades and centuries to come. However, it is worth noting that in the Pacific Northwest, their numbers have dwindled at a rate of 6% to 10% per year and it is being studied.

One factor heavily weighing in on the survival of the Great Blue Heron is urban sprawl. As more and more land is eaten up by asphalt, more and more trees are lost reducing the Great Blue Heron's habitat. As well, that is also impacting bald eagles and they are now one of the biggest threats to Great Blue Herons as they routinely rob their nests and kill their offspring or eat the eggs in the nest.

Another threat is the common black crow who usually come to the nests after the eagles have passed through. Since Great Blue Herons take such pains to nest high atop trees or cliffs, mammalian predators are not as great a threat though at times they have been known to kill adults but especially weakened offspring who have not mastered their survival skills.

Nothing is more majestic than seeing one of these fantastically awkward appearing birds land or take off. As the one video shows, it is as if they are ballet dancers performing the most intricate of steps on their spindly legs.

I hope to be lucky enough to get better pictures down the road in flight and otherwise. I could spend a lifetime photographing these incredible birds.



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    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      7 years ago from Washington

      Awesome Scribenet....I only wish I'd been as good at photographing him then as I have become in the past year~ Check out my photos on my website - I have many, many more and wonderfully better shots (I think)....they are truly mesmerizing birds and I have found that walking softly and moving very slowly works...some of the time.

    • Scribenet profile image

      Maggie Griess 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Fantastic! I have a resident blue heron at my house but have never got more than a blurry picture because I can never get close enough. I can only enjoy it from my kitchen window from afar since it is very wary of movement. I am going to bookmark and study this Hub and get to know more about this lovely bird! These pictures are the best I have seen! Thanks for sharing and researching this!

    • katyzzz profile image


      7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      You've certainly been busy around here and looks like there are a lot of bird lovers here (count me in).

      Loved the stuff!

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 

      7 years ago from Canada

      Loved it! My Mom (a great bird-lover) always spoke so highly of the blue heron, and I have always been fascinated by them. They are so big! Thanks for sharing a wonderful hub.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      7 years ago from Planet Earth

      You captured some great shots here! Bird photography is difficult - it's beyond my ability, I think, for sure! I'd never heard the interesting fact about preening being a way to adjust feathers so they perform correctly, but it makes perfect sense.

      Very nice hub! Voted up and interesting.

    • Felixedet2000 profile image


      8 years ago from The Universe

      wow, what a beautifully written hub. i love the layout. thanks for this, i am definitely going to share this for sure. Voted up.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, Suzie - as always.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      8 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Loved this Hub - really great photos and interesting info. You did it again! Rated up and awesome.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Bruce - I just point and shoot and can't quit until I run out of my cards~ I think it is the greatest gift in the world to be part of nature and I try and capture a bit everywhere I go - and when you love it, it's an easy hobby to cultivate.

      I'm so glad you liked - birds are one of my many passions to photograph and I feel so blessed to have caught a few up close and personal. If you liked my Henri the Heron, please go see my pelicans - they are my absolute favorites and can't wait for them to return this year!

      Happy hiking, birding and snapping!!!

    • Born2care2001 profile image

      Rev Bruce S Noll HMN 

      8 years ago from Asheville NC

      Wonderful Hub!

      I learned so much. My wife loves to photograph birds. We often find ourselves pishing as we hike. Of course Great Blues don't answer to that call. (Kinda glad they don't after reading what they eat. LOL)

      We live in the Blue Ridge Mountains amongst several small lakes and we've seen them but haven't been close enough to get shots like these! What a treat. Thanks for sharing and for the work of putting this hub together.

      It's a testimony to do activities you love. Bravo!



    • Dahlia Flower profile image

      Dahlia Flower 

      8 years ago from Canada

      These are amazing photographs you captured. I've never seen a heron swimming along. I didn't even realize they do it. Thanks for sharing these.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Henri the Heron is indeed a beautiful bird, and he or she gave you quite a show to photograph. Great job with the Great Blue! Thanks for sharing this neat read with delightful photos.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Happy New Year Audrey!

    • arusho profile image


      8 years ago from University Place, Wa.

      Great hub, I love bird watching! I used to live close to a rookery that was right next to a park and ride! It was really noisy but fun to watch all the young herons learning to fly. Blue herons are so beautiful.!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      The Great Blue Heron is a beautiful bird. Amazing wingspan for a bird not weighing all that much! You have given us great information about this bird and provided wonderful photos and videos. Thanks! Up votes!

    • profile image


      8 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi akirchner. I also like taking photos of birds. They are marvelous creatures. I'm primarily attracted to their gracefulness. Nice photos by the way.

    • natures47friend profile image


      8 years ago from Sunny Art Deco Napier, New Zealand.

      Wow...soo long and amazing...Amazing photos...I am getting a new camera so I need to teach myself how to use it. Voted up and awesome.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      SGBrown - Birds are one of my favorites to watch and 'shoot' - good luck in your endeavors as well. I only wish they were all bigger~~~

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 

      8 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      I really enjoyed your hub. I love taking pictures of birds also. I am hoping to get a picture of a Great Blue on of these days. Great hub, voted up and following. I look forward to reading more of your hubs!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Pras - Thanks so much for stopping by and for your kind words.

      Dolores - Isn't that always the way? I have seen Henri again and did not have my camera but I'm gonna keep going back~! Thanks so much for stopping in as well.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi. Audrey - wonderful pictures of the GBH ! Just had a close encounter with one this weekend and wished I had my crappy little camera. He was so close, I know I could have gotten a shot! They are such magnificent birds and you've really offered us some great shots.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Hi, Audrey. I love birds and this hub very beautiful. I really enjoy all the pictures. Thanks for writing and share with us. You have done a great job here. Rated up and useful!


    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, BKC - it was just too cool - as cool as my pelican shoots. Now I'm hooked and keep going back to see if he's there. One of these days will get some more swimming ones me hopes~

    • BkCreative profile image


      8 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Wow - do I love this! Glad you had your camera. I love it too that Henri did all that posing for you. I've learned something new too - about preening.

      My favorite shot? As Henri raises his foot to scratch. There is something about those feet (and similar feet from other birds) that just drives me wild. Maybe because the feet are so cute. I just don't know. But I love bird feet.

      Yes, the numbers are dwindling. We just don't seem to understand that we are supposed to share the earth with other animals - not dominate it and stupidly think we can what - tame it? Good grief!

      Thanks for a magnificent hub, pictures (wow, what a take-off) and all about a most magnificent bird.

      Rated up of course. Yay!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Indeed, Om - I shall have to put that little 'bug' in his ear next time I see him~~~ It would be really funny though of Henri was really Henrietta - I just can't be certain at this point in time but I shall get back to you if I happen to see him/her starting a nest downtown....except since they both care for the young, I'll still be at a loss~ Oh well, I'll just love 'him' from afar~~~

      KKG - Thanks so much for the visit. Despite my bad neck and arms, I can't believe I stood there for that long without a tripod and was able to share so much time with Henri! It truly was one of my best moments and keep going back to perhaps capture him in the water again!

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Amazing pictures. It was fun leaning all about the great Blue Heron. Up, awesome, and interesting.

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 

      8 years ago

      Hey! Great hub and awesome pics. Henri is very handsome. If I was a heron, I would definitely marry him! =D

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Maggs - So glad you stopped by and enjoyed 'the show'. He was quite the bird!

      Irene - Awesome - would love to see the birds of Sweden if not in person virtually~~

    • irenemaria profile image


      8 years ago from Sweden

      Birds are amazing animala. I am a bird watcher in Sweden =)

    • maggs224 profile image


      8 years ago from Sunny Spain

      Great photos and great hub I have enjoyed my visit immensely :)

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, Nell - I aim to do better and capture him in the water again close up and personal but not TOO close - and imagine if he had let loose with some bird droppings!! That would have probably covered me! Watch out for those big ones flying in the sky!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      8 years ago from England

      Hi, what amazing captures, I love the ones standing on one foot! and the take off! I have seen a heron on the top of a house near me, and it was enormous! in fact when it flew over me it looked like a pteradactyl! amazing hub, and photos!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Thanks, Eddy~! I enjoy anything about animals as well or nature or...or..or...

    • Eiddwen profile image


      8 years ago from Wales

      A great hub for sure; I love anything to do with animals,wildlife,or nature and this one was a treat for sure.

      Take care and enjoy your day.


    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Chaplin: They are truly the most awesome birds...of course second only to my beloved white pelicans~ But I am a bird brain from way back. I love watching them and especially photographing them. I SO wish I'd had my SLR when he dove into the water and swam! I have some others from a visit by a river but I wasn't satisfied with them - another day perhaps~ Enjoy yours on the opposite side of the country - they truly are magnificent.

      Crewman - I even named him - Henri - so I'm hoping to see him more. I do believe it is the same one and since I train my dogs down there every day just about, I'm hoping for some more photo ops~ Of course there is a kingfisher down there who now has caught my eye....I told Bob maybe I should just camp out there for a few days and take pictures but in the cold, rain and snow, it might be a bit difficult~

      Glad you enjoyed~~It was a lot of fun watching him go through his grooming!

    • Crewman6 profile image


      8 years ago

      Wow, Audrey. Love the photos, and an in awe at your dedication. Well-researched hub, lots to learn, and fabulous pictures. Good luck catching more pictures of him. I think it's pretty cool he regularly returns to the spot!

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      I love this Hub!! I live in Charleston, SC on a creek and we see great blue herons all the time. I have NEVER seen one swimming like the one in your picture. How awesome! Thank you so much for sharing. Voted UP.

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Thanks BJ - I had a lot of fun with my friend Henri - although my neck and back still are hurting from standing there in the cold. I can't believe I didn't get 'shake' effect on my pictures though I still wish they were a bit closer.

      Bob said too he must have gone to photography school as he definitely was a 'poser' - how funny - but he couldn't do me the ultimate favor of letting me see his magnificent wingspan on take off - he just plopped off and he was gone~

      Oh well, I have become a slave to his spot on the creek now....I go every day with the dogs and always bring my cameras~~~ I have no doubt he will probably give me more to write about one of these days!

      Thanks for the read!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      8 years ago from south Florida

      You realize, doncha, that this was not just any old Great Blue Heron, Audrey, that you photographed. This was a professional model great blue heron who had completed a full series of modeling training sessions. Just look at those shots, those poses, that professional nochalance - particularly when standing on one leg. You did a magnificent job capturing the spirit of this winged creature ... with very spindly legs. The bird, that is, not you, m'dear. Brava!

    • akirchner profile imageAUTHOR

      Audrey Kirchner 

      8 years ago from Washington

      Barb - They are hard to photograph probably because they are so silent a lot of times and then just when you think you have it framed, they take off! I sure hope it's not my pictures~~~ I'll wait and see if anyone else says anything about not loading.

      I'm so far behind this week - I will get to your hubs SOON I promise~ I just barely made it over the finish line with this one.

      Gail - Thanks as always for stopping by and I do so love these big guys. He was definitely a 'poser' - that's what Bob said, too. He just didn't leave - and then of course when he did, I missed the dang best shot of him flying - and of course landing up there at the beginning because my camera focused on the tree! Arrgh - oh well, I'll keep trying!

      Thanks so much writer20 for the nice comment and for stopping by!

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 

      8 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Amazing, Audrey. I learned a lot by reading this. I think I was photographing one of these birds at Morro Bay a couple of weeks ago, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure. It was fishing quite a few yards from shore, standing on one leg and was a fairly large bird. Some smaller ones, also on one leg, were fishing very close to it. For some reason a couple of your pictures are not loading. I hope it's just me not seeing them. Voted up and everything but funny.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      8 years ago from South Carolina

      What a wonderful series of photos. I love Great Blue Herons and though I have luck seeing them, haven't managed to get any great shots of them. This guy/gal you saw was a great poser. Thanks for sharing this and also all the information about these magnificent birds. Voted up across the board except for funny.

    • writer20 profile image

      Joyce Haragsim 

      8 years ago from Southern Nevada

      Great hub and photos. Voted up


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