Like all of the great blue herons in this neck of the woods, I got up very early on a frosty February morning to photograph a pair that I was very familiar with from having photographed the male before.
I shot over two hours of footage with my Canon DSLR camera. Then I waited. And waited some more.
What was taking so long? Was it possible the male was not going to fly?
Did I need to move closer to the feeder to be able to get a shot? (No) After a while, I decided I had waited long enough and I should leave so the couple could continue their courtship.
By leaving, I had inadvertently changed the outcome. The female was not aware that the male was not going to fly.
So, the female took off to find a new mate. That is, I think, what she was doing. It was too dark to see and too cold to stay, so I left.
When I returned later in the day, I was rewarded with a better video of the bird doing the behavior I had just missed. In the video, you can see the male fly off and then return after a minute or two.
Great Blue Herons are one of the few raptors that will use a fire ant mound as their mate preference device.
I am not sure why; the female does not even have to leave the area.
It’s a rare event to see the male actually coming to the mound and doing the actual mating thing.
It usually happens after the female has left.
This behavior takes place when a male is actively seeking a mate, but not yet a breeding pair.
The male will sometimes even fly over and around the mound to gather some sign of interest from the female.
First, he will scan the area for an appropriate mound.
He will generally use a hole or other small depression that is rather large, with a wide opening, but not too large that he cannot easily move into it once he arrives.
Once the male has found a mound, he will go to the top and immediately begin courting the female.
If she is receptive, she will allow him to mount her.
He will usually begin with the same sequence as described above: looking around, searching for other females, and then looking for the right hole.
Once the male is in place, he stays in place. He will call the female to indicate that he is ready.
The female may respond and become ready for him to mate or not. Often, they will both become ready at the same time, but sometimes one may take a few more moments to grow into the idea of mating.
Once the pair has become ready to mate, they both begin what is called an “Eyes Wide Open” display. In this, the male is more vocal and in some cases even makes a kind of strange neck movement.
This indicates to the female that she is the one to take off.
Once the female is fully ready, the pair will begin a sort of drumming/pecking sound.
This is the “post-copulatory” mating sound, that many of us associate with the male bird’s display after mating and a female’s agreeing to the coupling.
As she is preparing to leave, she will make a slight wing flap in preparation for takeoff. This is a distinctive behavior that is found in a few other species of birds as well.
At this point, if you are at a Great Blue Heron fire ant mound observing this behavior, you can get a great look at the bird’s large eyes.
The male’s eyes are large and almond-shaped. His head and body are massive. This species is the largest member of the heron family.
The most common way for a human to be attacked by a Great Blue Heron is when the bird is in an aggressive attack posture and attacks out of the blue.
Here, we are in a similar position as the female: waiting for the male to take the next step in their courtship dance.
The male Great Blue Heron has a very large and pointed bill. If you are not familiar with this, check out this image.
The bill is long and hooked. It allows for a good reach when attacking and its sharpened point often finds its way through clothing and into a person’s skin.
The bird’s head is roughly the size of a carotid artery and can easily take a large chunk of flesh from a human being.
As it is not a very hungry bird, it is usually not interested in a meal and will quickly leave the scene.
I personally have been at the top of a hill and witnessed the female take flight and get far enough away to safety.
I guess that I was at a “good spot” to observe the attack as I was looking back toward the male who was on the ground below.
Some of the larger towns and cities have made well-documented attempts at protecting the fire ants. The attempts may be a bit too late, however.
The Great Blue Herons are too strong and too fast. All we can do is ensure that we are not a “good spot” for these birds.
While it is not legal to kill these birds in many parts of the world, it is extremely important to keep your distance.
We all want to visit these fire ant mounds and marvel at the sheer size of these animals. It is quite possible that at some point we may have been in a “good spot.”