Thom Smith: Herons hunt on more than just water


Q: We live in South Lee and our back lawn slopes down to the Housatonic River. Every year we see a blue heron wade in the river and fly along the river. It is a lovely sight. For the last week or so, the heron has been walking into our yard and the neighbors. Yesterday, he was very near the house. He/she is almost stalking in the garden area. I watched for an hour yesterday and he did not make a move. What could be causing this behavior? -- Irene, South Lee

A: Great-blue herons are not restricted to feeding in water alone. Following the last day of summer a few years ago, I wrote an essay turned into a Naturewatch column about kayaking on Cheshire Reservoir and spending time watching a great-blue hunting on a steep bank near the former lime kilns at Farnams. Here, yards from water, the wader usually seen perched on a low branch or stump or knee deep in water, was catching grasshoppers among the grasses on the rocky, gravely slope. In slow-motion, it was not restricting its hunt to grasshoppers, and I am sure the bird was also hunting for mice (and any other small mammal it was fortunate enough to catch) along with snakes, frogs and other larger insects. It would not have snubbed a small bird that was within range of its bill.

While we expect to see these nearly five-foot herons in both freshwater and saltwater habitats, they appear to be at home foraging in fields, lawns and on agricultural land where these opportunists will hunt for whatever is available. Woe is the homeowner who has a back yard koi or small fish pond discovered by a great-blue. Through the years, I have had several reports of these occurrences and could only suggest covering with screening.

I have read that these birds will also jump from a perch into deeper water, and swim or float to search of prey, but have never had to opportunity to witness this first hand. They are also known to hover briefly and dive into the water after fish.

Q: I haven't seen hummingbirds in a week now. Is it time to take down the feeder? -- Janice, North Adams

A: No, hummingbirds are still here, and it is always a good idea to maintain and keep a freshly stocked feeder with sugar water through September for late visitors. Stragglers are even seen in early October.

Reader's comment:

Of particular interest this year, we observed and continue to observe the orioles feeding at our hummingbird tubes, which are located in our flower boxes. These flower boxes also have decorative rail inserts on the back side of each flower box. It's interesting to watch how the orioles reach these hummingbird feeders and feed sometimes completely upside down while they hold the rail. Sometimes they flap one wing to balance as they reach for the tubes. The oriole juveniles have been trying to do the same, trying to learn from the parents.

We sometimes watch the orioles and hummingbirds feeding at the tubes at the same time.

-- Joe and Audrey, Pittsfield

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