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.
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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