A few weeks ago the Middleton Stream Team in a Water Closet essay described great blue herons feeding on fish. New friend, contributor and WC reader Art McKee, forestry scientist in the far west, responded with a story of his own about great blues at a dry table in Oregon. Most Stream Teamers have never seen common great blues feeding other than from water.
Water Closet for 11-1-13 Herons Feeding on a Dry Field
In the mid 70s, I was out at the airport near Corvallis, OR waiting for a friend to fly in with his light plane so that we could take some aerial photos of potential research areas. The wheat fields around the airport had just been harvested and were golden stubble sticking up through a uniform carpet of bleached-out straw scattered by the combines.
While waiting, I sat on the station wagon’s tailgate and watched a great blue heron move slowly through one of the adjacent wheat fields. It moved as if it was stalking something; but out in a recently harvested wheat field on the end-of-the-growing-season bone-dry Willamette Valley clays? It didn’t seem likely, and yet it sure seemed to be hunting. It stopped, stood poised and focused on a spot on the ground, then lanced its beak into the straw and pulled out a Camas pocket gopher (aka Pacific giant gopher), which it tossed squirming and writhing into the air, opened its beak wide and swallowed it, galumph! The gopher was far from dead, however, and wriggled like crazy as it moved in surges down the neck and into the gullet of the heron. For several more seconds, the heron was agitated and repeatedly shook its neck while swinging its breast from side to side. You had to believe the gopher was still putting up a fight — talk about spicy food! Then the heron stopped shaking and quieted down, standing there for several minutes before resuming its hunting.
I sat there amazed at what I’d just seen and sort of came to when I heard my friend’s plane on approach. When I told him what had just happened and pointed over to the heron still stalking around the wheat field, he shook his head saying he’d never heard of such a thing. Herons eating gophers?
A day or two later I asked my friend Chris Maser, a noted regional naturalist, if he’d ever heard of anything like that. Chris laughed and told me that he’d grown up in the Willamette Valley and had seen great blues hunting gophers many, many times. He told me that while most records of that behavior were from the wheat fields and prairies of the Pacific Northwest, similar feeding on small mammals was not that rare an event, that great blues were opportunistic foragers.
Over the 30-plus years I lived in Oregon, I only saw great blues feeding on small mammals two other times. Both times they were after pocket gophers in recently harvested grain fields. Still shake my head when I think of those times they acted out of character, or my perception of a great blue’s character.