Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Celebrating Olympia's Great Blue Herons

Words, photos and videos by Nancy Partlow

“The Heron flies in a slow, leisurely manner, as if it was hoping to remember where it’s going before it actually gets there.”  Anthony Armstrong
Great Blue Herons are iconic and beloved denizens of the Olympia shoreline.  Of all our local species, I think they most resemble the dinosaurs from which birds evolved. To see one flying with huge wings extended, and hear its emphatic grawk, only reinforces the impression of a present-day pterodactyl.

Great Blue Herons are beautiful, graceful in flight, and have intense golden eyes that reveal, more than anything else about them, their wild natures.

For photographers and bird lovers, the presence of these magnificent creatures offers an increasingly rare opportunity to capture images of bird life on the Olympia waterfront.   I’d like to share some photos that I’ve taken and some interesting facts I’ve learned about Olympia’s herons over the last few years.

Last spring, I noticed a group of great blue herons gathered on a rubble pile offshore of West Bay Drive - which seemed odd.  Except when nesting, herons don’t seem to tolerate being near each other like that.   I thought perhaps it might have something to do with the breeding season. As it turns out, it does.

According to WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Management Recommendations for the Great Blue Heron,

Prior to nesting, herons may gather in groups. Surveyors have observed pre-nesting groups close to many of the region’s heron colonies…

...  There is some debate as to how prevalent these groups are in the region. Although birds may not exhibit this behavior at every colony, more survey and research during the pre-nesting period will help us better understand these habitats.
I dubbed the jumble of bricks and cement blocks “Heron Island”, and discovered it is located almost directly below the heronry tucked in the woods above West Bay Drive. 

At the start of the breeding season, adult herons sport a long, jaunty plume upon their heads,

...and an elegant feather cape draped over their shoulders.

Their beaks and lower legs deepen in color from a dull yellow to an orange hue.

Juvenile Great Blue Herons differ in appearance from mature ones, appearing to have more brown coloration and more solidly dark heads than adult GBH’s.

Looking like a Dr. Seuss creation, and perhaps newly fledged from a nest at the west Olympia heronry, this juvenile scoped out the lay of the land and water at Percival Creek estuary in the spring  of 2013.

It could have been the same young bird I captured in silhouette later that summer hunting below the 5th Avenue Bridge.

A salmon swam at its feet, but after jumping into the water with a noisy splash,

the heron emerged with a smaller fish impaled upon its bayonet-like mandibles.

Quickly ingested its prey, evidence of its kill stained its bloody beak.

When hunting, herons can be quite territorial.  Watching two of them at the Percival Creek estuary, one stalked the other until the perceived interloper was forced to fly off and land near a group of geese and ducks.  Finding safety in numbers, the vanquished heron’s countenance seemed to say, “Don’t mind me.  I’m just hanging out here with my peeps.”

After dining, the wispy cravat on a heron’s breast serves a specific purpose.  According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds web site,

Great Blue Herons have specialized feathers on their chest that continually grow and fray. The herons comb this “powder down” with a fringed claw on their middle toes, using the down like a washcloth to remove fish slime and other oils from their feathers as they preen. Applying the powder to their underparts protects their feathers against the slime and oils of swamps.

Herons have their favorite grooming posts.  Months without rain in the summer of 2013 left the accumulated evidence of one such hangout at Capitol Lake, on a log covered with heron droppings and old feathers.  As I watched the bird combing and preening, it created a small cloud of feathers and dust around itself.

Herons are opportunistic, and the 5th Avenue dam and two nearby bridges have created favorable conditions for them to pursue fish.  At certain times of the year, it is rare to visit this location and not observe a heron.

One day at the dam, the inky-black reflection of a 5th Avenue bridge streetlight manifested intriguing and ever-changing patterns in the water near a bird.  I half-expected it to spell out, “Save the Herons!” or “Surrender Dorothy”.

Waiting for the darkness to lift, a heron huddled on a dam abutment one freezing winter morning at the perigee of a King Tide.

Peering intently into the autumn-hued waters of Budd Inlet, a heron stands like a phantom at the threshold between two worlds.

Humans too, stand at a threshold; between a world where species other than ourselves can flourish, or one sadly and eerily devoid of such life due to habitat loss, climate change and the ever-growing claim that Homo sapiens stake upon the earth’s freely-be bestowed gifts. 

I am so grateful to those people who have toiled to protect Olympia’s heronry and forest habitat above West Bay Drive.  May their inspiring work be an impetus for further preservation, and restoration, of Olympia’s nearshore and shoreline ecosystems, and the Puget Sound at large.

Videos (for best viewing, watch in high definition):

Great Blue Herons in pre-nesting congregation on rubble pile off West Bay Drive, right below the heronry:

GBH eating a three-spined stickleback at 5th Avenue dam:

GBH watching flock of mergansers swim by at North Point:

Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Protection (group working to protect the west Olympia heronry) on facebook:

March Point Heronry colony at Padilla Bay, with a link to some audio of herons on the nest:

Pictures of Woodard Bay heronry:


  1. The second to last photo with the orangy reflection is stunning. Glad to have found your blog, Glen (and Janet). Betsie DeWreede

  2. Great article! Thanks for the links to other heron resources - I love learning more about herons - particularly our locals.

    In Seattle a major heron colony at Kiwanis Ravine was attacked by eagles. The colony was decimated and abandoned by the herons (descendents of those birds est in maples just south of the Crittenden Locks in Seattle). I understand these eagle attacks are common-place in the wild. I am wondering if there is a way to protect the heron colony the city has just purchased?