A natural gift came my way from Mother Nature on the Winter Solstice. The sight of a little heron with feathers the color of snow.
I was taking a leisurely stroll around the West Pond of Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on Wednesday morning. As I came across a small tidal stream I was shocked to see a juvenile Little Blue Heron.
Little Blue Herons are fairly rare around New York Harbor, even immature ones. The birds tend to be more common in the southeast, some even migrating for the winter as far south as South America. So I was naturally skeptical. Double and triple checking my field guides, I was searching for positive markings to make sure this bird was a little blue and not an egret.
Despite its name, a first year Little Blue Heron does not look blue. In fact, it appears more like a Snowy Egret. Its feathers are practically all white and are about the same shape and size of a Snowy Egret.
As little blues get older, the birds molt into a dark blue plumage. This radical change in plumage for Little Blue Herons is unique among herons and egrets - adult’s coloration is dark and the juvenile is white.
As adolescents, Little Blue Herons can easily blend into a flock of egrets. In fact, other egrets will accept young little blues foraging near them. From an evolutionary position, this is an important ploy for the young birds to safely learn how to forage for food among large flocks of similar looking adult birds.
Birds being birds, however, most are nervous of people getting too close. This is especially true of adult Little Blue Herons. They seem extra wary and hard to approach. Little blues often forage alone, far away from human activity in isolated locations. Most casual bird watchers, and even serious birders, sometime confuse plastic bags or other pieces of trash as birds. Little blue’s dark feathers also make spotting one difficult, as it tends to blend in easily inside stands of subdued colored vegetation.
On this day, however, the immature little blue was not hiding. It was all alone probably no more than 50 or 60 feet from where I was standing. The bird was either too hungry to care or too young to be worried.
The bird was stalking in shallow waters for small fish and crustaceans. While it had a long spear-like bill similar to an egret, this bird was not a frantic forager, as most Snowy Egrets tend to be. It was still and would wait for fish with a bill that was pale blue at the base and black at the tip. It had yellow eyes and greenish legs. All traits of a young Little Blue Heron. This was indeed a growing Little Blue Heron in Jamaica Bay.
According to the New York Natural Heritage Program, a partnership between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the Little Blue Heron was an occasional visitor to New York during the late 1800s. They were first reported as breeding in the state during the late 1950s, on a salt marsh island in Jamaica Bay. By 1985, there were 68 breeding pairs in eight colonies. Yet, breeding populations have been on a steady decline. The 2007 Long Island Colonial Waterbird survey showed an average of less than 20 breeding pairs.
The state program goes on to suggest that the destruction of breeding and foraging habitat from overdevelopment and sea level rise are the greatest threats to Little Blue Herons nesting around New York Harbor. Other threats include disturbance of nesting areas by human activity, including boating, fishing, dredge spoil deposition, and predation primarily by gulls, fox, and raccoons.
Little Blue Herons are also not doing well nationally. The population has declined by 55% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. In New York State the bird is listed as protected, which mean it cannot be hunted or taken at any time. In New Jersey, Little Blue Herons are listed as a species of special concern and protection.
It would be nice to think this particular young Little Blue Heron is here to stay and help re-populate the population, but that’s not likely to happen. Young little blues don’t breed until their second year. This bird is growing and just like all growing kids, it’s seeking food. This young bird is probably here to enjoy a tasty meal of small fish and crabs before flying off from Jamaica Bay. Maybe it will return someday, but until then it was a nice sight while it lasted.