The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest North American representative of the Ardeidae family and one of the biggest herons in the world. Birdwatchers can spot these stealthy hunters stalking along water bodies and pausing to spear unsuspecting fish with deadly accuracy.
Have you ever wondered about the extent of their distribution or where they go at different times of the year?
Great Blue Herons can be seen all over America, just about anywhere that shallow fresh or saltwater bodies occur. They can be seen throughout the year in the Pacific Northwest and in Florida but are partial migrants elsewhere in North and Central America.
Great Blue Herons usually migrate as far north as central Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. However, you can see them all year long on the Pacific coastline of Western Canada and Southern Alaska.
Great Blue Herons are primarily fish hunters, so you are most likely to spot them where healthy fish populations occur. However, they are adaptable birds that can switch to a diet of small mammals and other land animals in grassland habitats, sometimes very far from water.
This article covers the distribution and habitat preferences of the Great Blue Heron. Read along to learn where you can find these stately American waterbirds.
Great Blue Herons are widespread across America
Great Blue Herons are essentially a North American species, although they do venture as far as the north coast of South America in the winter. These birds are partial migrants to the north of their range in Canada, although they persist all year in coastal areas of the West and Southeast.
Great Blue Herons are known to turn up in pretty unexpected places too. Confirmed sightings in Southern Europe, the Azores Islands, and Iceland have been reported.
Vagrant birds could be more common than expected because they are easily confused with the Gray Heron (Ardea cinerea). Check out this article to learn how to distinguish between the two species.
Interestingly, Great Blue Herons are also residents of the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. However, the closely related Cocoi Heron (Ardea cocoi) replaces them across most of mainland South America.
During the winter, Great Blue Herons can be found on the north coasts of South America
Great Blue Herons occur in every state of the continental United States, including Alaska. They can be seen throughout the year across most of their US range. However, they are summer breeding visitors to the Midwest in states like North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Minnesota.
Great Blue Herons are widespread in Canada, where they occur as a summer breeding migrant. These birds are also present year-round along the coast of British Columbia in the west and New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Quebec in the east.
Great Blue Heron in flight
Great Blue Herons are waterbirds. You can see them hunting alongside just about any body of water that contains their favorite prey- fish.
These birds are most common in the following fresh and saltwater environments:
Great Blue Herons occasionally forage for rodents in dry habitats far from water. You might spot these lanky waterbirds in pastures, prairie, salt marshes, and other open areas.
Great Blue Herons occupy a range of habitats, mainly around fresh and saltwater environments
Great Blue Herons are common and widespread. They can be seen throughout the year in most of their range, wherever water bodies don’t freeze over.
However, these birds weren’t always so common. Persecution by hunters for the feather trade, for meat, and just for sport undoubtedly lowered their numbers in days gone by.
High levels of industrious waste and pesticides also took their toll, but improved awareness and control measures have benefitted the species.
Great Blue Herons are impressive birds that are a joy to watch through the lenses of your binoculars. Birdwatchers can observe these birds practically anywhere with shallow fresh, or saltwater habitats.
Reach out to local birdwatchers or guides for locations of local Great Blue Heron breeding sites for a great birdwatching experience. These birds nest in heronries - colonies where multiple pairs breed, often in large trees or on the ground on protected islands.
A small group of Great Blue Herons, Whitty's Lagoon, southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Great Blue Herons are primarily diurnal hunters. These birds usually spend the night in the safety of tall, leafy trees, sleeping with their bills tucked under their wings. However, they have excellent night vision and are frequently seen out hunting at night when fish often move into shallow water.
Great Blue Herons are partial migrants. They do not necessarily maintain their territories throughout the year, even though birds in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest do not migrate.
Most other Great Blue Herons migrate south for the winter - sometimes traveling as far as the Caribbean islands and the North Coast of South America in countries like Venezuela.
Migratory Great Blue Herons usually nest in the same area each year, although they rarely use the same nest site.
Close up of a Great Blue Heron with a fish in beak
Great Blue Herons can be seen throughout the year across much of their range. However, most of them migrate for the colder months to find hunting grounds that have not frozen over. So, where do Great Blue Herons live in the winter?
Great Blue Herons disperse into the south to escape the winter ice. They occur throughout most of the Lower 48 states but also fly into Mexico and beyond. Some birds even enjoy the warm equatorial climate of Colombia, Venezuela, and the Islands from Cuba to the West Indies.
Great Blue Herons can be seen throughout the Lower 48 states in the Summer. They also move north as temperatures rise and waterways thaw, migrating as far as the southern half of Canada to breed.
However, these widespread and adaptable birds also nest in the south of their range, with breeding records as far afield as Venezuela.
Great Blue Heron in flight over a Florida wetland
Great Blue Herons are generally solitary but can also be seen in groups, sometimes numbering up to a hundred individuals. They often gather at specific locations when nesting, usually in safe areas near prime fishing grounds to feed their chicks.
Males often maintain feeding territories throughout the year. These territorial birds will aggressively chase other members of their species away. Female and immature individuals may be territorial in the warmer months but feed side by side in the winter.
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