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Watchable Wildlife: Great Blue Heron

A great blue heron in flight
Great blue heron (Ardea Herodias)
Photo: Sue Shafer

Did You Know?

  • The webbing between their front two toes prevents the great blue heron from sinking into the mud while wading.
  • Large colonies or rookeries may have hundreds of individual nests, each reaching three or four feet across.
  • Both parents take turns incubating their eggs and feeding their chicks.
  • The largest heron chick gets the most food and sometimes pushes its weaker siblings out of the nest.

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What to Watch for:


Head, neck and upper body of a Great blue heron

Adults stand 3 to 4 ½ feet tall, with a 5 ½ to 6 ½ foot wingspan and weigh 4 ½ to 5 ½ pounds; females are smaller than males.


They are bluish-gray with black and white streaks on the front, have long, slender legs and a yellow bill, a long neck folded into S-shape when in flight, and have a black plume of feathers on their heads.


Look in the mud for 6- to 7-inch imprints with four toes (three facing forward and one pointing backwards), each with a claw mark; webbing may be apparent.


A drawing of great blue heron tracks
Great blue heron tracks
Look for many large nests scattered high up in the canopies of trees, generally near water.

Where to Watch:

They forage for fish and other prey in swamps, salt marshes, lakes, slow moving rivers and streams, and along beaches, fields, or meadows throughout New York State. Rookeries are on islands or in wooded freshwater swamps across the state, except the coastal lowlands of Long Island.

Stay at least 1,000 feet away from active rookeries in order to prevent individual birds and colonies from abandoning their nests, and to assure that they return to their nest site each year. Human disturbance is the biggest cause of nesting failures.

When to Watch:

Most active during dusk and dawn; abundant throughout the breeding season (mid-April to late June) and the summer. Most migrate for the winter. Some will remain where there is open (unfrozen) water for foraging, such as along the lower Hudson River and the coast of Long Island.

The Best Places to See Great Blue Herons:

Fire Island National Seashore, Suffolk County
Four Brothers Island Preserve, Essex County (viewing from boat only)
Great Swamp Conservancy, Madison County
Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan
Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, Orleans and Genesee Counties.
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Kings County
Letchworth State Park, Livingston and Wyoming Counties (leaves DEC website)
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, Seneca County
Schodack Island State Park, Rensselaer and Columbia Counties (leaves DEC website)
Valcour Island State Park, St. Lawrence County (accessible by boat only)

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