Great Blue Heron Rookery

While in Vermont in mid-June, visiting the Wantastiquet Lake Trout Club near Weston, and the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester for work and research on my current book The Favorite Flies of Mary Orvis Marbury, I passed this great blue heron rookery along Rt. 20 between Bennington and Manchester. On June 11th on my way there, I saw it but did not stop. On my return on the evening of June 13th I did stop and took some photos.

Great Blue Heron Rookery. These heron nests all have young in them.

There were eight nests, and I counted 13 adults that I could see, though I think some may have been out fishing. I did note one adult wading about 100 yards from the rookery. I stopped my car, crossed the highway, rested my camera on the guardrails, set the telephoto at 2x, zoomed out to 24x, and took these images.

Another nest, one adult is on limb at lower left of tree trunk.

Two great blue herons just hanging out in their ‘hood.

I have always enjoyed seeing great blue herons. Even though they are hell on fish, which sometimes includes trout. I once found a nineteen-inch brown on Pennsylvania’s Letort Spring Run, foundering on its side in two inches of water on a mud flat. I inspected it, seeing no damage or injury at first and thought perhaps it was dying of old age. Then I flipped it over and saw a deep gash on its right gill plate. Then the fact that three great blue herons had flushed from that area when I rounded the bend 100 yards downstream fifteen minutes earlier revealed the truth of what had happened. The trout was surely dead already, doomed by the infliction of having been mortally speared, yet still quivering as its life ebbed away. I thought briefly about keeping that trout; I mean I didn’t want it to go to waste and at that time I couldn’t think of a better use for that trout. I can only imagine how good a wild brown from the Letort would have tasted, stream-bred, cress-bug and scud-fed, but it’s strictly a no-kill area. So I left him there; eventually the herons or a mink or raccoon surely found it. That was over 25 years ago.

I read a bit on Wikipedia on herons; typically they nest in rookeries, more specifically called a heronry, and commonly there can be over one-hundred nests in a heronry. I have only ever seen a handful of heron nest sites; the largest may have had twenty or so nests. They swallow their food whole, and one of them could have gulped that nineteen-inch trout without difficulty, but it is noted that occasionally great blue herons choke on food too large to swallow.

I learned of a local name for herons – “swamp chicken” while in Canada back in the 1990’s. This phrase usually included an expletive or two. The trout clubs in southern Ontario don’t like great blue herons. Some of their feathers were historically used for fly tying, most notably on spey flies. But I also discovered from personal inspection that there is occasional use of great blue heron wing quill slips for wings on some of the flies from the 1800’s in the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, and also on the actual fly plates from Marbury’s 1892 book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories. One pattern in particular, judging by the color plate painting, appears to have a two-color wing. This is The Hart Lake Fly on Plate G. In J. Edson Leonard’s 1950 book Flies, he lists the wing recipe for the Hart Fly as “black, teal green over.” This is incorrect, and by a long-shot miss. I doubt that it was a pattern variation either. The wing of The Hart Fly is actually great blue heron, taken from sections of paired wing quills. And I know this without doubt because I had the privilege of holding the 120-year old Plate G (with white gloves) in my hands on June 13th, visually inspected the flies, and also photographed it, along with the 32 original Marbury fly plates, will be published in my book. I have also held heron feathers in my hands; I found a shed once along a stream while fishing. It has a lighter dun-gray color than the darker slate of a Canada goose, and possesses a unique shade of steely-blue-gray, sort of a battleship gray color. The closest thing I have ever seen to the (heron) wing on the Hart Fly was the medium blue-dun dyed wing quills that used to be sold by E. Hille in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

Favorite Flies and Their Histories records this information on the Hart:

“No. 48. The Hart is a combination of colors almost unknown among artificial flies, but one that is very beautiful in this fly, which was sent to us by Mr. George Hart of Waterbury, Conn, after whom it was named. In his letter inclosing this fly he wrote us that it had proved one of their best flies in their late expedition to the Maine woods, where he and a party of friends have recorded some phenomenal catches.”

At home, I have recently downloaded all the Orvis fly plate images I photographed from Marbury’s book. Twenty-four out of the thirty-two original plates were out on loan, so I will be returning to the museum to finish photographing the eight remaining plates. Besides filing the original plate images, I have edited and cropped each plate, making macro images of each individual fly. I also photographed The Hart Fly on the 1893 Orvis Display in the museum that Mary Orvis Marbury created for the Chicago World’s Fair. The wing material on both Orvis patterns of the Hart Fly is the same. I love Leonard’s book, but the more research and study I do comparing my visual inspection notes and photos of the actual Orvis patterns in Marbury’s book to the dressings listed in Leonard’s book, I can only conclude with all due respect that he probably made his best guess as to what the materials were on the flies in Marbury’s book by studying the color plate paintings of the patterns. There were no written recipes for the patterns in Marbury’s book. I can understand how this would happen. For example, the Fiery Brown on Plate F in Marbury’s book, according to the painting appears to have a three-color married wing, of a light brown, cinnamon, and slate. Turns out this is “shading” recorded by the artist who painted the original fly. The actual wing on the Fiery Brown is one solid color, a dark-cinnamon, fiery-brown as you might expect. Leonard recorded “brown hen” for the wing on the Fiery Brown, which is also a bit misleading. Of course heron feathers can not legally be used for fly tying.

My friend Truman recently bought a gift for me at a used book store; four copies of The American Fly Fisher, the quarterly publication of the American Museum of Fly Fishing. One of them was the Winter 1998 issue, and he bought it specifically because it contained an article by John Betts of Colorado, noted angling historian, and features the Fancy Lake and Bass Flies in Marbury’s book. About ten of the original plates were photographed and appear in that article. Mr. Betts had some very interesting things to say about the r3verse-winging methods used at the time. I plan to write a review of this article and post some of the photos.

After this slight digression, which is sometimes important to tell the complete story of the subject at hand, or at least makes it more interesting, I conclude with one more heron photo.

Great blue heron eating snapping turtle. Photo by John Harrison from Wikimedia, used by permission. I have been told that the stomach acids of herons are very potent; that would allow for the digestion of the shell and other elements of their diet such as bones, and crab and crayfish shells. In addition to fish, herons will eat frogs, young birds, salamanders, and rodents. And young snapping turtles. The little snapper was probably thinking, “Oh, crap. I’m toast.”

14 comments on “Great Blue Heron Rookery

  1. Great heron pictures, Don. I spend a fair amount of time in the evenings on the bank of the Allegheny river here and I’ve had quite a few herons land near me. I’ll sit completely still and watch them fish. I always check the area after they notice me and fly off for any feathers. No luck yet. I hope your book is going well. Looking forward to reading it.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Jeff;
      Glad you enjoyed the story and info. They are fascinating to watch. Thanks for your interest in my book, and thank you for your comment and support!

  2. Thanks for all the info and pics Don. I’ve never run into their nests, but I often see herons fishing near me on creeks. Can’t wait for your book, i can bet it will be great.

  3. Woolybugah says:

    Don, Thanks for the education. I’ve seen these birds since I was a kid growing up in MA but never knew anything about their nesting habits. When food becomes scarce they can become quite bold. 2 yrs ago on the Housatonic River here in CT, when the river was exceptionally low, I had a young one stand 10 ft behind me on the river waiting for me to catch a fish. I turned and shook the fly rod at it and it would not move.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Dick;
      I’ve known they nested in rookeries for a while, but the first one I ever saw was over 20 years ago in Maine along I-95 as we headed toward the Waterville exit on one of our Moosehead Lake trips. My brother identified that one for me. Speaking of your heron story, I had forgotten but I have a really incredible story involving a heron, two friends of mine, and a big landlocked salmon on the Roach River in Maine. I just might have to write that one up, in fact it’s on the list of stories to include in another book idea I have; a collection of my personal fishing / hunting / outdoor tales with family and friends.
      I’ve seen herons in more populated areas where they get used to anglers, they become more like pesky seagulls.
      Thanks for your comment! Appreciate your interest!

  4. Bill says:

    Fascinating stuff, Donnie. Great Blue Herons gather in large numbers on the Susquehanna River downstream from Conowingo Dam during the shad and herring runs in the spring, but I’ve never been able to spot where the rookery is. They are amazing fishers, with seemingly endless patience and admirable stealth. They are also fail-proof indicators of whether or not the shad have moved up into the creeks; if there are herons standing around, you can be sure the fish are there too.

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Bill;
      I can tell you from experience that there is a good-sized heronry on an island below the Safe Harbor Dam on the Susquehanna. It’s only visible (from the east side) in early spring before the leaves are fully out. You and I had an e-mail discussion earlier this spring, how herons have an uncanny sense to locate runs of fish. I speculated at that time whether they can actually pick up the smell of migrating fish such as shad, herring, etc., via the sensory capabilities of their olfactory system. I mean, after all, turkey vultures can locate carrion from miles and miles away.
      Great blue herons are stealthy, slow, and efficient killers. Thanks for your comments as always, Bill!

  5. Erin Block says:

    Fascinating history on the herons….I always love watching them on the water. And they make some of the spookiest noises in those rookeries! Really really enjoyed this post, and that photo of the snapping turtle is incredible!

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Erin;
      I am glad you enjoyed it! I appreciate your comment and agree, the heron noises are at times prehistoric sounding. That snapping turtle photo is incredible, I wish I took it. That’s the nice thing about Wikimedia. Poor turtle actually looks like he and the heron are eye-to-eye…predator and prey I guess. Thanks again for your comment!

  6. […] Great Blue Heron Rookery ( […]

    • Don Bastian says:

      Hi Dave;
      Thank you for your entertaining piece on great blue herons. You are correct in the explanation of the heron call as a sound with direct links to the Jurassic Age. I enjoyed your post, thank you for the link to my blog on the heron rookery.

  7. Hi Don,

    I work at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium in Dubuque, IA. We are putting together an exhibit on turtles. We are interested in using your photograph of a snapping turtle hatching in the beak of a heron in our turtle exhibit.

    Could we have your permission to use this photograph in the Turtles exhibit?

    Michelle Kilgore
    Education Dept.

    • Don Bastian says:

      That photo of the heron and snapper is a Wikipedia photo; if you google Great Blue Heron, go to Wikipedia, check the photos, you can see their photo use requirements. The photo is captioned to the original photographer. Good luck with your exhibit!

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