The first great blue heron of the spring was spotted March 18 in Fari­bault, and by now many have returned to Minnesota. They winter in a range extending from our Southern states down into Central America, and always return to their breeding range and, specifically, to their nesting rookeries early in the season. Although I grew up thinking of these majestic birds as belonging to the northern Minnesota lakes, we also see many in the southern part of the state. In fact, the largest nesting colonies are found in the southeastern and central regions. The great blue heron, or “blue crane” as it is often called, is the largest and best known of American herons. Like most of the heron species, it is very sociable, preferring to nest in congested communities that vary in size from a few pairs to hundreds of birds.

Herons are stately, graceful birds, flying with slow, steady wing beats, with necks drawn in and legs stretched out behind. They stand more than 3 feet tall, with much of their height consisting of the long legs and necks. From tip to tip, their wings measure 6 feet. In addition to its height, the heron has a very distinctive appearance, with its blue-gray color, largely white neck and head, black eyebrows extended into several long plumes off the back of the head, and a 6-inch yellow bill. The feathers at the base of the neck drop down to form a kind of necklace. Males and females look alike and seldom weigh more than 7 pounds.

The great blue heron often is seen standing motionless in shallow water, patiently waiting for prey, like an unwary fish or frog, that it catches with its sharp beak. The bird’s hunting routine, which is done by day or night, also involves stalking on dry land for snakes, mice, shrews, plus grasshoppers and other insects. When necessary, the heron also will alight on water and swim for its food.

Jim Gilbert’s “Nature Notes” are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.