Luna pranced ahead as poodles will do, while Pat walked beside me in my motorized scooter. We just had completed a relaxing “roll-and-stroll” along the Anacostia Trail. As we worked in the parking lot to put the scooter back in the car, we saw that the Bladensburg Marina’s pontoon boat was moments away from a trip down the river.
Seizing the moment, Pat and Luna ran ahead to secure our seats. I soon joined them. With the helping hand of a park apprentice and the benign patience of the captain and other passengers, I got on board and we got under way.
There were only about a dozen of us, but we were the usual Anacostia crowd of whites, blacks and Hispanics, representing as many age groups as ethnicities. The pontoon glided down the river on an ebb tide. As we crossed under the Route 50/New York Avenue Bridge, we entered one of the quietest and most verdant parts of the District of Columbia.
On the northwest shoreline, a large, prehistoric-looking bird stood silently, peering into the shallow water. A great blue heron standing proudly like some ancient royalty in a lonely marsh is one of the Chesapeake’s iconic sights. Everyone on board recognized it.
Long, bare legs held the bird’s bulky body. Its neck was coiled into an “S,” its long dagger bill at the ready. With lightning speed, the neck uncoiled and the sharp bill shot into the water, emerging with a small fish. A quick toss of the fish into the air was followed by a precise head-first catch. We watched as the fish lump in the bird’s throat went down that long neck until it disappeared.
As we had just witnessed, great blues (Ardea herodias) are solitary, skillful fishermen. Herons are carnivores. They eat crustaceans and all manner of fish, amphibians, small mammals, the occasional insect — and even other birds. Some great blues will also venture into agricultural fields in search of field mice and the like.
Like the other members of the aredeids family (herons and egrets), the key to the great blue’s hunting success lies in its remarkable neck.
When they are hunting, these birds typically stand in shallow water, silently looking for prey. They may extend their necks out straight to cast a shadow on the water, making it easier to look beneath the surface. Great blues can also hunt with necks curled, and that’s where the bird’s biggest secret is revealed.
The neck vertebrae of the great blue are longer than the bird’s throat suggests. Hidden by skin and neck feathers, the extra bones double back on themselves, giving the resting neck its characteristic “S” shape.
They are also the force behind the lethal bill. As expected, the neck bones begin at the back of the great blue’s skull. A short way down the neck, a remarkable thing happens. The neck vertebrae switch places with the trachea and esophagus. The neck bones are now in the front and the vulnerable food and wind pipes are behind them. As the neck gets closer to the body, its internal arrangement returns to a normal configuration with the bones in the back.
When the bird straightens its neck while hunting, the uncoiling vertebrae snap the head forward with terrific force and speed. The lethal bill either opens slightly to catch its prey or stay closed as it spears its food. If the prey fights back with flailing tail or scratching legs, the great blue’s exposed throat is protected by the hard neck vertebrae.
Great blue herons are the largest and heaviest wading birds in North America.
They stand almost 4 feet tall and have a 6-foot wingspan. These herons fly with their necks neatly curled tight against their bodies, long legs stretching out behind their short tails. The slow, shallow wing-beats add to the impression of a prehistoric presence in a modern sky.
As its name suggests, the great blue heron is predominantly a blue-gray bird. An all-white morph is confined to southernmost Florida and the Caribbean.
Great blue herons are year-round residents of the Pacific Coast, the intermountain West, southern United States and the Chesapeake Bay.
During the summer, many birds leave these areas for more northern climes, from Manitoba to Maine. In fact, the great blue heron breeds in every continental U.S. state and Canadian province. The only exceptions are Canada’s arctic territories.
Sharing the same regions are hundreds of millions of humans, varied in color, ethnicity and habitats. We are all easily recognized as members of the human family.
Taking the time to look beneath the surface reveals hidden assets and strengths that deepen our knowledge as well as our sense of wonder. It is a lesson for the worlds of birds and humans alike.