The blue herons of Duke Gardens

Now that the weather is warming up, I’m looking forward to seeing the blue herons who hang out in Duke Gardens.  I’m assuming there are more than one of them although I’ve never seen a pair.  They are fearless and let you get really close if you want to take a picture.  Here’s one I snapped a couple of years ago in the Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens.

These creatures have always fascinated me.  A couple of years ago during one of our awful summer droughts, I saw one  walking upright on its spindly legs through an almost-dry Ellerbe Creek.  The heron reminded me of a dinosaur or a freaky creature from another planet.

I wanted to find out more about these birds, so I contacted my friend and ornithologist-extraordinaire  Becky Browning. Becky was the bird collections manager at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and is now living with her husband in Amsterdam.  She works as a bird conservator at Naturalis Biodiversity Center there.

Becky told me that the herons nest colonially in trees, and are partially nocturnal.  (No wonder I don’t see them eating the goldfish out of my pond, I thought.)  Apparently they are increasing all across North Carolina, breeding in places they haven’t before, and moving to higher elevations in the Appalachians. In fact,  they’ve been spotted in Watauga County at Bass Lake, over by the Cone Manor, one of our favorite places.  They were one of those birds, like the osprey and the eagle, who suffered from DDT in the 60s and 70s but have since made a comeback.

They eat anything: mostly fish, of course, but also crawdads, large insects, frogs, small snakes, and if an unlucky mouse is nearby, mammals too.  You hear folks with garden ponds complain about the herons who swoop in and eat their koi. That’s why I stock my pond with 10-cent goldfish!

I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again in Duke Gardens in the coming weeks.  For more on herons, check out The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s heron page.

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