Reflections in Nature: Green heron nests in spruce

I have come to the conclusion that my friend, Bob Bastion, is trying to help me learn more about wildlife, because he keeps coming up with questions that I have to delve into nature books to find the answers.

Early last spring, Bob asked me to come out to his shop and identify what he referred to as a gooney bird. Evidently, these birds have been nesting in a spruce plantation behind his house for the last four years.

After quite a few unsuccessful trips to his property, I finally got to see and photograph the birds. However, the ones I saw that day were juveniles, which made identification harder. After searching through several books and other sources, I was able to identify Bob’s gooney birds as green herons.

The scientific name of the green heron is Butorides virescens, with Butorides coming from two Latin words: butio, meaning “a bittern” and ides, denoting a relationship of this heron to the bitterns. Virescens also comes from two Latin words: viridis meaning “green” and escens meaning “to be somewhat greenish or becoming green.”

From the Latin name, I realized that the green heron does not show a lot of green; instead, often showing more blue than green, and can be mistaken for a little blue heron and also the smaller least bittern.

At a distance, the green heron appears as quite black and resembles a crow; however, the green heron flies slower than a crow.

The herons belong to the family Ardeidae, which comes from the Latin word area, meaning a heron. Included in the family are herons, egrets and bitterns, with 63 species worldwide. These birds are long-legged and long-necked wading birds, closely related to the storks, ibises and flamingos.

Although in structure, egrets, herons and bitterns are very similar, most egrets are snowy white. Egrets, which are actually herons, were given their name from their long plumes known as aiegrets.

These small herons are rather secretive and usually solitary but also can be found in family groups.

Green herons breed across most of the United States, wintering from South Carolina through Florida. They are fairly common and regular migrants in Pennsylvania, except in the mountainous sections of the high plateau, where they are uncommon.

The green herons arrive in southern Pennsylvania during early April; however, in Bradford County, they do not appear until the end of April. They are the most distributed of the small herons in the North.

The green heron is a small, stocky bird with short legs, a thick neck and small crest. It has a greenish-gray back, wings, rump and tail. At close range, the neck is a rich chestnut color, and the legs and feet are either a greenish-yellow or orange.

When alarmed, the bird will elevate its shaggy crest. During its first year’s plumage, the breast of the bird is heavily streaked

Their nests are built in either dense shrubs, low in trees or evergreen plantations. They are very adaptable and could nest near humans and often near water.

I found their nest high in a tree in the midst of a spruce plantation. It was hard to believe that a nest built so flimsily could be the green heron’s nest; however, on the ground under the nest, I found the skeletal remains of a young bird and piece of an egg shell nearby.

According to the National Geographic’s “The Complete Book on Birds of North America,” the green heron is one of the few North American birds to use tools when foraging.

It will place a leaf, feather, bread crumb or other object on the surface of the water to use as bait and then wait for a fish to swim up to investigate. The green heron appears as a bent stick while waiting for small fish to swim by. With a quick strike of its pointed bill, it rarely misses its target.

Usually, the heron does not spear its prey but grasps it between its beak and then swallows it whole. Later, the indigestible parts are regurgitated in a pellet.

The green heron puts each foot down with care, at times raking its foot on the bottom, and then peers down into the shallow water to examine the raked area for moving prey.

Most herons and egrets leave the water to defecate.

Bob’s questions and requests always lead me to learn something new about nature, and I am always amazed at God’s handiwork.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.