Nature Nut: Let’s raise your knowledge of cranes and other ‘fisherbirds’

July 29, 2018
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This great blue heron recently occupied the fishing spot of Nature Nut’s grandchildren on a Silver Lake stone arched bridge.

I recently took a short walk down my backyard hill to take my grandchildren fishing on one of the stone-arched bridges at Silver Lake.

As we got across the road and I could see the first bridge clearly, I noted there was already an excellent catcher of fish on the bridge, one I would not want to disturb before I got my camera.

For there, perched on the top of the bridge, was a stately great blue heron, seemingly comfortable, even with people walking or biking by on the nearby trail. I quickly went home, got my camera and came back for a few pics before making our way to the bridge, causing the heron to look elsewhere.

I suspected it might just head out to the spillway below the nearby dam, where I have seen a heron fishing many times over the past couple months.

Herons are some of the long-legged and long-necked birds, also including egrets, bitterns and cranes, that may be seen in during warm months throughout Southeast Minnesota. Their long necks and legs serve them well for walking in water and feeding on fish and other critters they see.

However, the size and long legs of the egrets and larger herons, which typically nest with other of their kind high in trees, makes them look very odd when viewing them from below.

Over the years I have noted many people just lump these birds all into the same group, simply calling them cranes, maybe because long-necked birds are easy to associate with construction cranes. But, while the herons, bitterns, and egrets are closely related, cranes belong in a whole different group, bird-wise. And, since I have written about cranes a couple of times previously, I will focus on experiences with the family that includes the others mentioned above.

All these other long-leggers are excellent fish-grabbers or stabbers, often eating fish bigger than you would think they could swallow. I watched a great blue down a 3-pound carp once, and I remember watching a smaller green heron down a pretty good-sized bluegill in our backyard stormwater pond years ago.

The great blue is by far the most common of these long-legged and long-necked birds, probably followed by a smaller relative, the green heron. Other herons that could be seen include the little blue, the tri-colored, the black-crowned night-heron and the yellow-crowned night-heron. Snowbirds that spend winters in Florida are likely to see most of these other herons.

The rarest of Minnesota bitterns, the least bittern, is one I also saw on that stormwater pond years ago. And on past yearly fishing-opener trips to a Central Minnesota lake, we would invariably hear, but not see, the other Minnesota bittern, the American bittern, making its somewhat gurgling “slough pump” call. Even when focusing on where the weird sound came from, the bittern was camouflaged too well, with outstretched neck matching shoreline vegetation. More recently I have seen American bitterns a few times along wetland pools in the Whitewater Valley.

The most visible of birds in this group would be the egrets because of their all-white feather coloration. This, and the striking plumes of feather, especially during the breeding season, caused egrets to be hunted almost to extinction for hats and other fashion decorations in the 1800s.

In Minnesota, we will often see the larger great egret, or medium-sized snowy egret, with rarer glimpses of the smaller cattle egrets. When trying to decide snowy or great, the yellow bill of the great egret vs. black of the snowy usually makes it easy. And the much smaller cattle egrets are often found around cattle, either picking insects off their backs, or on the ground the cattle stir up.

So, take a walk around Silver Lake, or a drive through the Whitewater Valley, and you might be treated to a view of some long-legged fisherbirds.

Bird ID

Reader Don Hegland chastised me for not giving the answer for the mystery bird from my column two weeks ago, so for those that were guessing, but didn’t contact me, it was a female red-winged blackbird, probably just hatched this year, based upon its fresh-looking feathers.

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