Great Blue Heron: Encountering Grace along the Haw River

If you have spent time on the Haw River, or around any rivers or lakes in the Southeastern United States, then you have probably seen this familiar bird.

Figure :

Often mistakenly called a crane, the Great Blue Heron (Ardea Herodias) frequently stands alone in the shallows of inland rivers and lakes and is the largest heron in North America.

The Great Blue Heron is a good species for beginner birders because it is easy to identify with a few recognizable field marks. Look for:

  • A long-legged bird with a blue-grey body
  • A long, dagger-like bill
  • A whitish head with a black horizontal slash
  • If in flight, the head may be curved into an S shape and the legs trail the body

Habitat and Range

The Great Blue Heron is highly adaptable, both in its food choices and the areas it chooses to live. If a habitat has water, then this bird just might be nearby. Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds places the heron in as varied environments assubtropical mangrove swamps to desert rivers to the coastline of southern Alaska.”

Part of what enables its adaptability is a varied diet, which allows it to winter farther north than other types of herons. Though the Great Blue Heron prefers fish—which explains why it is always staring at the water—it also subsists on turtles, snakes, rodents, insects, and other birds.


If you spot a Great Blue Heron, one of two outcomes is likely. It will continue standing in the water looking for food, or it will fly away.

When wading and hunting prey, this heron moves slowly, carefully placing one foot at a time to avoid disturbing the water and its prey. The Great Blue Heron is slow-moving patience embodied in bird form. It waits…watches…moves…waits.

Finally, when a fish swims near, this heron strikes with a quick thrust of its sharp beak.

In his legendary Ornithological Biography, John James Audubon, after years of studying the bird, notes that it “always strikes its prey through the body, and as near the head as possible” and may then kill the prey by “beating it against the ground or a rock” (p. 389).

Maybe you don’t want to witness that display, or like Audubon, shoot a heron, but many people still take pleasure in watching the bird stalk. You could do yoga and follow your breath, but if you really want to be in the moment and pay attention to each movement, just watch this heron.

Figure : Drawing by John James Audubon from Birds of North America. Plate 21.

While the Great Blue Heron is fun to watch, it can be difficult to get close to them. Audubon found these birds “[e]xtremely suspicious and shy,” noting their admirable hearing and sight, and cautioned readers, saying “to walk up towards one would be a fruitless adventure.”

If you do approach a heron, you will probably see its singular flight pattern, which is slow moving and charming and is another way to identify this species. Even when perturbed, the Great Blue Heron hardly seems to hurry. When it flees, watch for its slow start, legs hanging down and then trailing the body. The neck may also be pulled into its body in an S-shaped curve.

Figure : Great Blue Heron in flight.

And if you do spook this heron, don’t fret. Hang around a bit and you’ll probably see it again. Often it will alight in a tree along the water or just a little way up or downstream.

Spotting Herons along the Haw River

Want to see a Great Blue Heron? Take a trip with The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. and let our guides help you search for these graceful creatures.

Whether you are a beginning or an accomplished birder, kayaking and canoeing provide a wonderful way to spend time with birds like the Great Blue Heron. It’s a privilege to share their environment and to encounter such grace.