Herons, Bitterns and Egrets – Part One


The Great Blue Heron is a majestic bird we are all familiar with, symbolizing nature and wild wetland areas for us. These birds and their other heron-like cousins, Bitterns and Egrets, have interesting aspects of their lives that we’ll discuss in two sequential columns.

These are predator birds, feeding on fish, frogs, and other creatures, and sometimes an occasional rodent, lizard or snake. Most are long-legged, walking slowly and quietly in the open to get close enough to strike with their long, pointed bills.

One of our local species, however, takes another approach. The American Bittern, with its brown and white vertical stripes, hides in the reeds waiting for its prey to come close. This cryptic feather pattern, while also keeping it hidden from potential predators, is well-illustrated by Liam’s accompanying photograph. You have to look closely even to see the bittern.

More winter challenges for birds

One look at this week’s feature bird, the Great Blue Heron, illustrates another winter survival challenge for birds – just look at those long naked legs and the huge un-feathered bill. How do birds keep bare legs warm when they’re wet and the weather’s bitterly cold and icy?

Feet, even long giant ones, have no muscle tissue. They consist of tough horny skin, bones, tendons and ligaments, and blood vessels. Birds are “warm-blooded,” and their arteries circulate enough warm blood to the legs and feet to keep them warm. The more significant challenge of winter, however, is protecting the bird’s internal organs from chilled blood returning in the veins. Rather than one or two large vessels, a bird’s arteries and veins are divided into many smaller ones that twist around each other. This twisting results in the incoming arterial blood warming the returning venal blood, thus limiting the temperature shock.

In cold conditions, many birds, from the largest to the smallest, tuck their bills into their feathers at night. This is not really to keep the bills warm. Rather, it’s all about keeping the birds’ internal organs warm. Tucking that bill into feathers allows the bird to breathe the warmer air trapped in the downy feathers, protecting their lungs from the shock of cold air.

Important birding presentation

There’s a virtual event coming up next week that I’m looking forward to and want to alert you to as well. It’s an introduction to bird watching, scheduled for Thursday, February 2nd at 6:30 p.m. and sponsored by the Puget Sound Estuarium, located right here in Olympia.

The live online program is presented by Alex Troutman, a wildlife biologist and Black Birder, doing research focusing on birds and insects in tidal wetlands. His talk will be about studying birds and waterfowl in general and being a black birder and nature enthusiast.

In the broader sense, Troutman is passionate about something we all should be supporting, increasing diversity in science and nature studies. He realizes that the best way to get minority youth involved is to be out there, encouraging young folks by showing them that there are wildlife biologists who look like you.

For more information about this free event and to RSVP click here

If you cannot attend through Facebook Live, you can register for the Zoom here:

Anyone can watch the video on Facebook Live with or without a Facebook account. To watch the talk: simply go to the Facebook link at 6:30pm on February 2nd and the video will be playing; you do not need to sign in to see it. If you would like to join via Zoom, you must register beforehand through the link above.

You can get additional information about Puget Sound Estuarium's monthly Discovery Speaker Series, including biographical details about Alex Troutman, on The JOLT's Community Calendar, here. 

George Walter is the environmental program manager at the Nisqually Indian Tribe’s natural resources department; he also has a 40+ year interest in bird watching. He may be reached at

Photos for this column are provided by Liam Hutcheson, a 15-year-old Olympia area birder and avid photographer.


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