Stiletto-billed herons have a taste for fish

A green heron strikes a regal pose at Six Mile Lake.

By BETSY BLOOM

Managing Editor

Heading down to the dock, I flushed the lesser-known of the Upper Peninsula’s more common heron species.

Usually the resident herons at Six Mile Lake have little tolerance for being interrupted while fishing and will fly across the lake with an annoyed croak. This green heron, however, went only as far as a dead treetop right alongside the shore, then preened and posed, so I took advantage of the opportunity.

Unless they choose such a conspicuous spot, green herons are likely to be overlooked, hiding in plain sight. Much smaller than the impressive great blue herons, the crow-sized green herons also have coloring — dark green back and crown, rusty chest and throat — that allows them to blend right into the background, especially when hunched in the shadows.

Like all herons, they mainly have a taste for fish but will take advantage of whatever else might present itself, snapping up insects, spiders, amphibians, reptiles and rodents, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org. That cricked neck lets it strike like a snake, sometimes impaling its prey with the stiletto bill.

It makes herons surprisingly lethal and able to punch above its weight class. A fairly gruesome video circulated this week on a Facebook birding list that showed a grey heron — the great blue’s counterpart in Europe, Asia and parts of Africa — snatch up a rabbit, which was swallowed whole while still feebly kicking.

Though the green likely is too small to tackle something on that scale, newly hatched ducklings could be at risk; great blue herons will scarf those down like sliders given the opportunity. Green herons also have been known to plunge into water after prey and can swim, with webbing on some toes, according to All About Birds.

They have one other rare talent as well: tool user. Again per Cornell, they have been observed dropping bread crusts, insects and feathers onto water to lure fish to the surface.

For all its wetlands, the U.P. has only a handful of heron species. Along with the green and great blue, experts list the black-crowned night heron and American and least bitterns, the latter classified as rare, as is the night heron.

Though larger than the green heron, the mostly brown American bittern may be even more difficult to see, given its habit of, when approached, raising its bill to the sky to let its streaked throat and breast mimic the reeds and other grasses.

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The 80-something degree days in the forecast will help, but even more, the southern winds should bring the last of the bird migrants back into the region, along with perhaps carrying the monarch butterflies here as well. Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson says she’s already heard a report of monarch eggs laid on milkweed, so at least one has managed to complete the journey from Mexico.

While I have seen one, tiger swallowtail butterflies do not seem to have emerged in force just yet, which holds to the pattern so far this year of everything in the North Woods seeming to be about seven to 10 days behind schedule due to the cold spring.

I’m hoping the warmth will finally coax a number of early dragonfly and damselfly species to give up the water for wings.

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Carlson said the fawn calls, thankfully, have ended for now. She can’t take fawns, and it’s unlikely they are in need of help, anyway — it’s natural behavior for a very young fawn to lie motionless in a safe place, just as it’s natural for the doe to leave it hidden for hours.

Otherwise, her spring so far has been “squirrelly and ducky.”

Two of the ducklings, unfortunately, were the only survivors after a hen wood duck led her brood out onto a busy road. Wood ducks are notoriously difficult to foster even when healthy — they are hard-wired after hatching to jump out of nesting cavities or boxes, so will continue to try to go “over the wall” to the point of fatal exhaustion.

Carlson has had some success taking wood ducklings to an area that has other nesting females and letting them call in a hen willing to take strays. But these looked and acted injured, she said, with one succumbing overnight and the other having a persistent head twitch. So release is not possible and she suspects the odds of survival are slim.

She’s had better success with the squirrels. The initial batch are grown enough she expects to move them soon to an outdoor pen.

Carlson also had a snapping turtle brought after being run over by a car, but it took a direct hit to the head, so there was nothing she could do.

The episode is a reminder that turtles will be hauling out to lay eggs, so watch for them on the roads and lend a hand, if safely possible, to move the turtle to the side of the road in the direction it was headed; do not return it to where it was, as it will simply try the crossing again.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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