The Richmond Times-Dispatch posted a story on Monday, all about Jim Alexander’s first sighting of a great blue heron back in the 1990’s.
Alexander lived in a high-rise in downtown Richmond, a place with a stellar view of the James River. One day as he was looking out his window, he was startled to see a couple of dinosaurs fly past, their six-foot wing spans filling his line of sight as they rode the wind currents. They were great blue herons.
Herons weren’t that common a sight in the 90’s, but things are looking up for this beautiful fish-eating bird. The stately great blue heron is a magnificent animal, with its subtle blue-gray plumage, it is often seen wading belly-deep in pools of water or standing motionless as it scans its surroundings for prey. It will eat fish, reptiles and amphibians, as well as other birds and small mammals.
This bird will surprise you, though. When it finds its prey, it moves with lightening-fast speed, its dagger-like beak snapping up the sought-after meal. In flight, the heron’s long, snake-like neck is tucked in, making it an aerodynamically sound flying machine, with its long legs stretched out behind.
After WWII, the use of the pesticide, DDT in the U.S. spread. By the sixties, it became apparent that we humans had made a very serious mistake, and our fish-eating birds of prey were suffering because of it.
The residual DDT had been washing into rivers and other waterways where it eventually ended up in the very fish and other prey these birds ate. In Virginia alone, a rough count in the late 1960’s came up with only a dozen or so breeding colonies of the great blue heron.
The federal government banned the use of DDT in 1972, and because of stringent conservation efforts, birds like the bald eagle, California condor, ospreys and herons began to make a comeback all across the country.
A recent survey, the first of its kind in decades, has shown the success of the comeback the great blue heron has made in Virginia. The survey, taken in 2013, documented 14,126 pairs within 407 breeding colonies, making the species the most widespread and abundant breeding waterbird in the Chesapeake Bay. This population is able to consume an estimated 8,200 metric tons of fish annually.
The success of the heron’s comeback has the added reward of letting us know the environment is also becoming healthy again. The herons have been so successful that colonies that would historically be seen along coastal waters are now being found far inland.
To prove this point, Richmond is home to a colony of 75 heron nests on an island in the James River near Shockoe Slip. The colony, which has a large number of fans in spring and early summer, includes six pairs of egrets. As for Jim Alexander, well, he still lives in downtown Richmond, and he still enjoys seeing the great blue herons. “It is,” he says, “a startlingly magnificent creature.”