We first spotted the courting Great Blue Herons at their rookery in the Abbott Marshlands on February 21st. Our vantage point was about a quarter mile from the heronry, far enough away that there was no chance we would disturb them. The birds and their nests were clearly visible in the treetops above the marshes that separated us.
The graceful birds showed a variety of courtship behavior, rubbing their bills over their mates, crossing necks, and engaging in lip-locks (I mean bill-locks!) with their partners.
Great Blue Herons can be found throughout the year in New Jersey (home of the Abbott Marshlands) although many birds are thought to be migratory, with a small number of year round residents. This means that many of the birds seen here in winter are probably not the same birds who nest here in summer, but rather migrants from further north.
We’re accustomed to seeing Great Blue Herons during the winter months at the marsh. But courtship behavior in February in New Jersey seems pretty unusual. Our summer residents shouldn’t be back yet, according to local birding literature. ‘A Guide to Bird Behavior’, copyright 1989 by Donald and Lillian Stokes, indicates that courting should be expected to begin the last week or so of March in this area. More current references also refer to late March as the time migrants should be expected to return.
Is this year’s early courting just an anomaly, a result of the warm winter? Or is this the beginning of a new behavior pattern? We’ll have to watch and see.
More Signs of Spring: Hazelnuts Blooming
Boyle, William J.; Karlson, Kevin T. The Birds of New Jersey: Status and Distribution. 2011.
Eastman, John. Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh. 1999.
Stokes, Donald W.; Stokes, Lillian Q. A Guide to Bird Behavior Volume III. 1989.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds
What a thrill!!! Mary Anne, we noticed three great blue herons in a very small park this morning. (Before we only saw one). Is mating to begin? Thanks so much. I am admiring your work from Red Bug Slough in Sarasota, Florida. See you soon.
Mating is more likely to begin in Florida now than in New Jersey! Look for groups of large nests near tree tops. Most courting takes place near their nests.
Really wonderful to see your photos. Interesting to see your variety of heron too.
I am so glad that those beautiful birds that I usually see all alone get some love. I wish I could have seen it. I saw three mergansers in the river today – is that also a sign of spring?
Actually, Mergansers are likely to be here in winter. But Goldfinches and White-throated Sparrows are beginning their spring molt, and Cardinals, Titmice and House Finches are singing. Those are all signs!
What an amazing sight!
It really was!