|5/14/2009 1:35:00 PM|
by Don ReimerFor sheer elegance and functional design, the members of the heron and egret family certainly distinguish themselves. While we are probably most familiar with the abundant Great Blue Heron, several of the more southerly heron species may occur briefly in midcoastal Maine in spring.
The Tricolored Heron (previously known as "Louisiana Heron") is a stately slate-blue wader with a clean white belly and a central rusty line running down the front of the neck. Its rather sturdy, pointed bill is used to capture fish and amphibians. With proportionally longer legs than most herons, the Tricolor ventures into the deeper pools in search of small prey items. It is common to see this species standing belly-deep in water. Their chief hunting strategy is rapid pursuit of fish with wings spread open; this deliberate foraging behavior shades the water surface, providing better underwater visibility while confusing its prey.
The Little Blue Heron is a bird of subtle beauty. About half the size of the Great Blue Heron, this species is distinguished by its overall dark appearance. The body is a uniform blue-gray, and the head appears as a purplish lavender color. The bill is tipped with black. Little Blue Herons stalk methodically in shallow waters for fish, crustaceans and insects. They will forage on dry land, occasionally following plowing tractors to gather worms and insects.
Although both herons are predominantly birds of the sub-tropical southeastern swamps, they nest in colonies as far north as Stratton Island near Scarborough. Unlike some of the other large wading birds, Tricolored and Little Blue populations have remained fairly stable within the past 100 years. Since both species lacked the intricate, showy breeding plumes of the Great Egret (the symbol of the National Audubon Society) and the smaller Snowy Egret, they were spared the ravages of the late 19th-century plume hunters. During that era, plume hunters entered heron rookeries, killing tens of thousands of birds and stripping off the ornamental feathers to adorn ladies' apparel.
On two walks along Manhattan streets in 1886, Frank Chapman, who founded the annual Christmas Bird Count, spotted 40 different species of native birds on 700 ladies' hats. In 1900 the Lacey Act made it unlawful to continue these barbaric practices, and a slow recovery process for many bird species was begun. The Farnsworth Art Museum is planning a November clothing exhibit dating back to the era of feathered attire.
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