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Piedmont Birding: Green herons use bait to catch their dinner

Staff Photographer

I checked several wetlands and ponds last weekend for any unusual waders that might have wandered into our area. I didn’t find any, but at every stop I found green herons. They seem to become more conspicuous in midsummer as water levels fall and the number of frogs increases. I was also reminded that the green heron is the American Birding Association’s Bird of the Year for 2015.

The green heron is a common resident in the Piedmont during the nesting season. I most often see them sitting motionless on the edges of ponds or on downed logs or stumps. They prefer the motionless approach to hunting; waiting for a fish, frog or other appropriate prey to wander near.

Sometimes you have to really scan the water’s edge to see them; they are only about the size of a crow after all. That’s about 21/2 times less than the size of the familiar great blue heron that is also common here.

Green herons are also unique in that they actually use bait to catch prey. An enterprising bird will use a feather, leaf or some other floating object to attract small fish. The heron will drop the object onto the water’s surface and wait for an unwary fish to check out the disturbance. If unsuccessful the heron will simply retrieve the lure and cast again.

I see green herons along Four-Mile Creek Greenway. Watch for a small dark heron that might flush from the stream bank. But you may have to look closer than that; a few years ago a young bird allowed greenway walkers and joggers to approach to within just a couple of feet or so while it watched the water intently for a potential snack. I think that is part of the widespread appeal of the green heron, a quiet non-menacing fearlessness that many individuals exhibit.

Check neighborhood retention ponds, creek banks and pond edges for this species. They will be with us into late September until they withdraw to the Gulf Coast for the colder months. In milder winters a few individuals can be found along our coast and rarely inland as far as Mecklenburg County

Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com