Little Blue Heron
The Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, at about two feet tall, is one of the smaller members of the Ciconiiformes, the group that includes herons, egrets and storks. Like all of the herons, it is a wading shorebird, which spends most of its time patiently stalking prey in shallow water along freshwater ponds or seashores. Little Blues are unusual among herons in having two distinct color phases–the fledglings are white with gray wingtips for their first year, before acquiring the slate-blue color of the adults. In breeding season, the adult heads turn a reddish-purple color.
This bird ranges from the southeastern United States down to the northern portions of South America. In Florida it is a year-round resident, but other populations migrate for the breeding season. Many populations also range northward during the summer–Little Blue Herons have been observed as far north as Canada.
The Little Blue Heron is a slow methodical hunter, which stalks in both freshwater and salt, and often hunts onshore as well. It will often stand entirely still for several minutes at a time, watching for the slightest movement. In freshwater, the most common prey is fish, frogs, and insects, and in saltwater it will prey on fish, fiddler crabs, and shrimp.
For most of the year, these birds are solitary. Just before breeding season, the males will begin to congregate in good nesting areas to claim a particular tree fork as their own. Here, they will display to attract females with a little “dance” in which the male stretches his bill upwards, erects his feather crest, and makes a jumping motion. Once paired, the male and female then build a nest. Breeding occurs in mid-March. Unlike most herons and egrets, who intermingle their nests with other species in large colonies, Little Blue Herons prefer to form segregated communities at the edges of larger colonies. Up to half a dozen eggs may be laid, and these hatch in about three weeks. Since the eggs are laid several days apart, the chicks are of different ages, and the eldest usually gets the most food. In good years, most of the chicks will survive and fledge, but in bad years the eldest sibling is often the only one to survive. The chicks are very susceptible to temperature, and an unexpected cold snap during the nesting season can be fatal. The youngsters fledge after about 25 days.
For their first year, the white-colored Little Blue Herons hang around with flocks of other white shorebirds such as Snowy Egrets or Cattle Egrets. This apparently protects them from predators and increases their hunting success. After about a year, the young birds turn blue and go off on their own.
Because the Little Blue Heron does not have the long showy plumes that the Snowy Egret and other wading birds have, it was not hunted for the feather trade as the others were in the early 20th century, and was not driven to the brink of extinction as they were. It is estimated that there are at least 17,000 Little Blue Herons in Florida. However in some areas, particularly in the Florida Keys, the birds are losing habitat due to human development. The Little Blue Heron is listed within Florida as a “Species of Special Concern”.