by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist
The Little Blue Heron, a year-round resident of the islands, is common but inconspicuous throughout estuaries and marshes all around Southwest Florida. This elegant, slow moving heron can also be seen in the occasional flooded field and commonly feeds in fresh water.
Thanks to its dark plumage and lack of long plumes, the Little Blue Heron wasn’t a target for plume hunters in the late 1800’, sparing this bird from the decimation that many egrets and herons underwent during that fashion period.
Unlike the Snowy Egret, which white immature Little Blue Herons are often mistaken for, this heron is slow and methodical in its feeding approach, walking very slowly in shallow waters or standing still waiting for prey to approach. In their immature state, the white colored immature transitions to the adult blue and the varied gray / blue patterns can be very interesting and are a great example of maturing colors. Remember, the greenish legs sets this bird apart from the Snowy Egret, which you may remember has bright yellow legs and black feet.
The Little Blue Heron feeds mainly on fish and crustaceans, but their diet is actually quite variable. When away from the water, which they often are, they enjoy grasshoppers, frogs, lizards, snakes and small turtles.
They breed in colonies, often in association with other herons and egrets. Nests are made in low shrubs and small trees in protected areas below the canopy. For added protection against predators, they may also choose flooded areas or islands to nest in. Once paired, both the male and female build a nest of twigs and sticks, with the male finding the nesting material and the female actually constructing.
A typical clutch is 3-4 eggs, with an incubation period of three weeks and a nesting period of six weeks. While in the nest, both parents feed the young by regurgitation. Within four weeks after hatching, young are capable of short flights but don’t become independent until six to seven weeks.
Just recently, during a couple morning golf rounds, the Little Blue Heron was quite a popular bird with several sighting along the lake edges at both The Dunes and the Sanibel Island Golf Club. The small size and dark color truly sets this bird apart from all others. They are seen all throughout the islands and do appreciate being viewed from a distance as they are easily startled. Keep your eyes out for this beautiful, small bird that many times in seen amongst several other “sweet shot” birds we’ve covered over the years.
Four Keys to ID
1. Size and Shape – A fairly small heron with a slender neck and fairly long legs, it has rounded wings and a long, straight, bill that is thick at the base.
2. Color Pattern – Adults are dark all over, with a purple-maroon head and neck and a gray-blue body. They have greenish legs and a bill that is pale blue at the base and black at the tip. Juveniles are all white and immatures are mottled white and blue/gray.
3. Behavior – They are a stand and wait predator, meaning they watch for fish and other small prey and then strike. They nest in trees , usually among other nesting herons and waders.
4. Habitat – Typically on quiet waters such as tidal flats, estuaries and swamps. Often solitary or in small numbers in secluded areas.