Last weekend I met a friend for an early morning bird walk at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth.
As I parked my car, I could see she had already arrived, and she appeared from around a hedge as I was gathering my binoculars from the front seat. Concerned about the time, I asked if she had been waiting long.
“No,” she assured me. “I just got here extra early because I was so excited to be out here!”
She quickly added that she had spotted some type of heron. Sure enough, as we walked out behind the nature center, stopped atop the hill and looked down at the small frog pond, we could both see a heron among the tall reeds.
At first, being extra cautious, we hid behind an apple tree at the top of the hill as we tried to identify the heron. The distance, as well as the presence of a few adult turkeys and their young foraging nearby, proved to be too much of a distraction, so we began meandering our way down the hill.
Soon we were at pond level, and were able to get better views (through our binoculars) of the small raven-sized bird. It was difficult at first to discern definite field marks, both because of the angle of the sun and the bird’s stance.
Eventually, the bird turned side-on and we could see its heavily streaked neck, chest, and belly, as well as its gray-brown back and dark brown neck. Carefully studying our field guides as we noted the bird’s characteristics, we confidently identified it as an immature green heron.
Green herons are almost the exact opposite of what many people picture a heron to be: tall, long-legged, long-necked and elegant — as is the familiar great blue heron. Instead, green herons are smaller and more compact, with shorter legs, smaller bills, and shorter necks. They are much more secretive as well, often foraging within the cover of wetland vegetation, in either freshwater or saltwater habitats.
These small wading birds can be opportunistic feeders, but primarily hunt for small fish. In this, green herons are unusual among their family in their method of fishing: they’ve often been observed to bait for fish. Using twigs, feathers, berries or even crusts of bread as lure, the green heron tricks its prey into coming close enough to grab. It may also use live bait, such as mayflies, and even earthworms dug from the mud, according to “The Birds of North America” species account.
Suddenly, the heron we were watching became agitated and flew toward the edge of the pond. I thought at first our presence had caused it to become nervous, but it became obvious this wasn’t the case when we observed it interacting with another young green heron we hadn’t seen.
The two birds jumped around each other and squawked a few times, before one of them — perhaps the first bird we had spotted — flew back to its original location. Now we could see the second bird clearly, as it perched on a sloping branch above the water. Frozen in a classic stance of coiled readiness, it stood poised to lunge forward and grab some unsuspecting fish or other prey item from the water.
I was glad we’d seen these herons, as these birds will be migrating to the southern U.S. and Central America within the next few weeks. And although this heron’s range is shown to include the entire state of Maine, this was my first sighting of the bird. However, it has been reported in other areas of the state, such as Moosehorn National Wildlife refuge in Baring, as well as in Guilford and Fort Fairfield.