Technicolor Heron…by Brad Marks

It’s agility dog show weekend which means we are packing up the steel mule and heading out to…well, somewhere other than here. I am generally told the destination at some point between getting on and getting off the mule. If I am lucky I packed enough underwear for whatever length of stay it turns out to be (yep, I cheat and get an idea of how many days and climate zones are being crossed by seeing what Linda ends up packing). She also indicated I don’t need to bring running clothes, so this one sounds fairly shot. While out, Brad will once again be at the helm of the Intrigued armada. Fingers crossed he keeps the flowers watered and more importantly, prevents our lawyers from throwing a kegger – last time I left they papered all the inside walls with photocopies of their butts. We had to disinfect the copier before the rest of our departments would even come near it. Good luck Brad ha!

Take it away Captain…

I often wonder where the names come from for some of the birds I see and photograph.  Many are very obvious:  red-winged blackbird for example.  (Even though it should really be the “red with a splotch of yellow”-winged blackbird.)  Or the red-headed woodpecker.  Nailed that one.  Not so obvious is the red-bellied woodpecker (have to look very close to see the red, and if you are close enough to see it you are probably too close). 

Today’s subject is no different.  While technically not “technicolor”, it is tricolored.  No, not the RGB (red/green/blue) colors so many former IT people know about.  But there are certainly more than the three main colors as the name implies.  At first glance, tricolored herons (Egretta tricolor) look like a miniature version of the great blue heron in stature and color.  However, when this one turned towards us there is a bright white patch on its throat and breast. 

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Hit the jump to read more about this Great Blue Heron mini-me!

My first thought was, “How does it keep that so clean?  It’s wading around in shallow muddy water all the time.”  The tricolored heron (a +1 for me) was fishing around the edges when it spotted a great egret doing much of the same.  It is just after 11:00 am at Huntington Beach State Park on a mostly sunny day in February.  I figured this must be part of the lunch rush to the wading bird equivalent of a food truck.  The tricolored is probably thinking, “I wonder if I sneak up behind that egret if I can cut in line.”

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Pay no attention to me.  Knowing the great egret probably knew where the fish were, it decided to stalk the egret.  All of this is purely speculation on my part and has nearly zero scientific basis.  The tricolored slowly waded over to “meet” the great egret. 

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

The size difference isn’t very obvious in this photo, but the tricolored is only 2/3 the size of the great egret:  26 inches tall compared to 39 inches for the great egret. (36” vs. 55” for their respective wingspans) 

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Isn’t this chance alignment cute?  We were there in late February, a week after the 14th.  After a few seconds, the great egret was having none of it and struck out at the tricolored.  The tricolored heron “ran” off, well, as close to running as any heron ever gets when moving through the water.  Herons and egrets do not normally move very quickly, except when a meal is spotted or they feel threatened.

Tricolored herons are sometimes canopy feeders.  Much like the great egret, or the reddish heron, they spread their wings to provide a little bit of shade over the water.  Small fish will swim towards the shade.  When the tricolored sees the fish gathering in the shady spot, it quickly strikes to collect a snack.  We did not see this particular behavior, but it sounds really cool.  “All” we saw was the slower and just as dramatic hunt and peck style. 

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Hunt and peck fishing involves the tricolored heron slowly wading around.  When it sees a fish it slams its bill into the water to grab the fish.  This happens very quickly and there’s almost no warm-up to queue on for a photograph. 

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Another method is called “fishing on the fly”.  The tricolored heron will fly low over the water dragging one or both feet in the water to startle its prey.  Then it simply grabs whatever it wants and flies away.  I think that’s what was happening here, but soon after the heron ran out of water and had to fly off to avoid crashing into the reeds.  We had a very good view of the spotless white breast.

Using my fantastic bird interpretation skills, I was able to discern that this heron had to be thinking, “Maybe there’s something over here that’s yummy to eat.”

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

With a consistent food supply, a tricolored heron can live up to 17 years in the wild.  Nearly 90% of their diet is fish (called piscivores) but they will also snack on small amphibians, crustaceans, worms, or insects.  Though tricolored herons tend to be solitary feeders, they often nest in large colonies with other wading birds.  Similar to other herons or egrets, the tricolored heron is monogamous during the mating season.  A pair will raise 3-4 chicks which fledge about 35 days after hatching.  Once they fly, the chicks are pretty much on their own. 

Tricolored herons are threatened in parts of their range mainly to habitat loss and degradation.  Ravens, crows, red-winged blackbirds, and boat-tailed grackles all prey on the unhatched eggs.

Remember, I’m only inferring what I think the heron was thinking, but it sure looked like it was thinking, “Gotta go.  I think I saw some small fish over there.”

Tricolored Heron by Brad Marks

Thank you for reading.  If you want to see more bird photos from our South Carolina winter escape, please visit here.


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan for some of the photos in this article. 

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