Heron colonies are usually located in isolated sites far from the noise and activities of humans and their machines. Beacon Hill Park colony nest trees are within easy walking distance of downtown Victoria. They stand a few feet east of Douglas Street, a busy city thoroughfare.
The large, slow-moving herons are easily seen without binoculars. During their six months presence in the Park each year--February to August--visitors can observe a wide range of heron behaviours, including courtship displays, nest building, mating, and the feeding of demanding, noisy young birds.
Bald Eagles regularly attack the nests with dramatic results.
Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodias)
are the largest and heaviest North American herons. They stand about
four feet high (1.22 metres) and weigh 5.3 pounds (2.4 kg). Their
wingspan is an incredible six feet (182.8 cm).
Adult herons are identified
by long body plumes, white
crowns bordered with black, and black shoulder patches. Male and female
herons look identical, though a few experts can distinguish males by
their slightly larger bill size.
The Beacon Hill Park heron
colony began with a single nest in 1982. Unnoticed by most Victorians,
the number of nests increased sporadically through the 1980's and
1990's. By 2000, when 65 active nests were counted, the colony was no
longer a secret shared by a few birders. In the following years, the
City of Victoria promoted the colony as a spectacular feature of the
Park. Heron photos appeared in city publications, a heron webpage and "heron-cam" were added to the city’s website, informational signs were
posted at the colony, numbered tags were nailed to nest trees, and the
parking area immediately below the nest trees was closed during nesting
to reduce disturbances.
In 2003, there were 99
active nests with 75 young birds successfully fledged. In 2004, there
were 96 active nests, with 60 young birds successfully fledged. (Great
Blue Heron Breeding Colony Database, Ministry of Sustainable Resource
Management; provided by Ross Vennesland, B.C. Ministry of Water, Land
and Air Protection.)
Great Blue Herons arrive in
Beacon Hill Park the end of January and early February to begin the
search for mates. Herons select new mates each year. The decision is
crucial because the pair must work together for more than three months
to successfully rear their young. The photo on the left, taken by N.
Ringuette in February, 2004, shows herons grouped in one of two favorite "meeting" trees located on Goodacre Lake a few feet north of the nest
Courtship involves both
sexes displaying their long neck, chest and back plumes, actions with
extended wings and feathers and special sounds. Bills turn bright
yellow-orange during the breeding period and fade after eggs are laid.
In 2004, ninety-six mated
pairs constructed apartment-style nests on branches in more than
seventeen shared trees near the Douglas Street crosswalk at Avalon Way.
Most of the trees used were Douglas firs. New nests were constructed or
refurbished as close to the treetops as possible; nest heights varied
from about 45 to 70 feet.
In the photo above, two
Great Blue Herons construct a nest high in a Douglas fir in Beacon Hill
Park. Most twigs are collected one at a time from nearby trees and
brought to the site by males. Females place them in position on the
nest. Impossibly long branches are often delivered and countless sticks
fall to the ground. The finished nests are loose, messy piles of sticks.
(This outstanding photo by Darren Stone was published March 23, 2004 in
the Times Colonist and is included with permission.)
Patient observers can see herons mating on nests they have constructed. Following the action of
courtship, nest building and mating is a quiet period of 14 to 35 days
when clutches of three to five chicken-size eggs are incubated in shifts
by both parents. The adults lie low in the nests and are sometimes
difficult to see, but according to one study, they are present about 90%
of the time.
Adults throw empty egg
shells out of the nests when the chicks have worked themselves free. A
fresh bluish shell on the ground is evidence a chick has hatched. Anyone
finding a shell can assume the egg was laid 27 days before and that egg
formation began ten days prior to laying.
Park visitors walking under
nest trees to examine discarded egg shells might want to wear hats.
Feces is directed out of the nest and down the tree, splattering leaves,
branches, the ground and the unwary. In fact, one of the best ways to
locate nest trees is to look down, not up: white feces is a reliable
marker of heron residence.
The action, noise and
pungent smell in the colony increase noticeably during the long period
when parents are feeding their demanding, growing young. For sixty days,
parents fly day and night in all four directions from the Park colony
to ocean shores including the Esquimalt Lagoon, Oak Bay, Dallas Road and
the Inner Harbour.
According to researcher
Robert Butler, most small fish caught by herons during this period are
gunnels, sculpins and shiner perch. Prey is most abundant in summer and
the best tides for fishing occur in May and June, when 7/10 of low tides
occur in daylight. If the adults nested early enough, this abundance
coincides with the extra demand of feeding growing chicks.
When chicks are small,
parents regurgitate partially digested fish into the nest; later they
regurgitate directly down their throats. At four weeks, chicks are large
enough to lift and swallow whole fish dropped into the bottom of the
nest. The photo on the left shows a returning parent met by two large
chicks lunging at its bill. The young pull the parent’s head into the
nest where it drops food before flying back to the fishing grounds.
After 60 days of non-stop feeding, the chicks weight has increased from
50 grams--the weight of l/3 of a medium apple--to a full adult weight of
2,400 grams (over five pounds). When they finally attempt flight, it is
likely the young outweigh their hard-working parents
If five eggs hatch, it is
likely three or more chicks will die. Some chicks die from exposure if
the weather is poor; some are attacked by siblings. A sizeable number of
chicks are eaten by Bald Eagles. Adult herons respond to Bald Eagle
attacks with thunderous cries of alarm and mass flights. Though
impressive to human observers, these displays are completely ignored by
eagles; the predators swoop low over the nests, grab heron chicks with
their talons and land on nearby Park trees to dismember and consume
them. Heron feathers falling like snow indicate to observers where the
eagle is perched.
A large number of young
herons fall to their deaths. Flimsy nests in constantly moving tall
treetops--already dangerous places to live--become increasingly crowded
as chicks grow. Young birds perched on wobbly branches outside the nest
can lose their balance. Siblings rush to meet returning parents,
jostling each other in the process. Gusts of wind catch flapping chicks
by surprise. Park gardener Margaret Marsden collected 30 dead heron
chicks from under nest trees in 2002, when there were 90 active nests.
Dead chicks on the ground
present Park visitors with rare opportunities to examine young birds.
One can appreciate their phenomenal growth rate when viewing the
incredibly large beaks and legs of three or four week old chicks up
A young heron exercises its
wings before daring its first short flight in this June, 2004 photo
taken by Brian Hepburn. Young birds are called "fledglings" for the
first few weeks after they leave their nests and "juveniles" the rest of
their first year. Though the same size as adults, fledglings can be
distinguished by their clumsy behaviour and remnants of down protruding
from slate-gray crowns. Juveniles are distinguished by their gray heads
and the absence of white and black crowns and long body plumes. During
June, July and early August, fledglings and juveniles can be seen
flapping awkwardly around the Park, landing on low trees and odd
locations such as the baseball diamond.
By the end of August and
sometimes earlier, all herons have left the nest area, not to return
until the following February.
Herons spend the winter
scattered along the coast, searching for food. Catching enough calories
every day to survive is a major challenge for young herons; it is
possible 90% die during their first year. Successful hunting requires
many skills, acquired only with time and practice. A heron fledging in
June has a much better chance to learn how to catch fish than a heron
leaving a nest in August when tides are poor and fish less abundant.
Winter is the hardest time of all; by December, only 1/10 of low tides
occur during daylight hours. Young herons strike at, miss and drop prey
more often than adults, according to Butler, and they are unable to
catch very small fish or large fish. In addition to being less skilled
hunters, young herons more likely to run into electrical wires, fences
and cars; they are also shot by people and killed by eagles and dogs.
Hunting and Fishing
Long-legged herons spend
most of their hunting time wading or standing motionless in shallow
water waiting for small fish or other marine life to come within
striking range. The distinctive S shape in the heron’s long, slender
neck can uncoil with incredible speed to catch prey. Herons grasp nearly
all fish between their serrated mandibles; it is rare to see them
In addition to fish, herons
consume almost any available live prey, including voles, frogs and
chicks. If a heron has enough flying room, it can scoop a duckling off
the surface of the water in mid-flight.
See great blue herons hunting in the video collection at the bottom of this page!
Henry the Heron
Though every other heron departs by the end of summer, but for years a semi-tame bird known as Henry remained in the Park year-round
Henry’s usual location at the northwest edge of Goodacre Lake was a photographer's dream. The photo on the right shows Henry posed with the picturesque historic Stone Bridge visible in the background.
Henry is one of the few heron chicks to survive falling from a nest. Most chicks either die on impact or quickly starve because heron parents do not feed chicks out of their nests. When Henry fell uninjured in the early 1990's, he was fed by nearby apartment dwellers. Now between ten and fourteen years old, he rushes to meet those who regularly bring him fish. He reportedly likes plain water sardines but rejects sardines packed in mustard or tomato sauce.
Great Blue Heron Colony attacked by bald eagles in 2007
Nearly three hundred giant birds resembling prehistoric pterodactyls congregated in one small area of Beacon Hill Park in 2004. The sights, sounds and smells produced by this large Great Blue Heron colony were spectacular.
The Beacon Hill Park heron colony was abandoned in May, 2007. They did not return in 2008. This article describes life in the colony in its heyday, before relentless attacks by three bald eagles led to the abandonment of seventy-one nests.
More information on the heron colony can be found in many chapters in BHP History. In Chapter 16, the first recorded nest in the park is described in 1982 and nest totals are provided for 1988 and 1989. In Chapter 17, nest counts are listed for 1990, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 and semi-tame heron Henry is profiled in 1996. In Chapter 18, nesting data is listed for each year; a heron overview and behaviours are presented in 2000; eagle attacks described in 2001. In Chapter 19, interpretative signs are described in 2003 and more heron photos are provided in 2004. In Chapter 20, the rearing of chicks is described.