Often incorrectly called a crane, to which they are not related, or an egret, which is in the same family (rather like a second cousin), great blue herons are widely distributed throughout the continental United States.
These patient predators stalk a wide variety of wetland prey near ponds, streams, lakes, rivers, marshes and coastlines, spearing and swallowing whole everything from fish to frogs to snakes to rodents. Although they typically hunt solo, they often nest together in trees in groups called rookeries.
These large wading birds stand nearly four feet tall, and have 72-inch wingspans. Adult males and females are similar in size and color. So how can you tell great blue herons and other herons and egrets from sandhill and whooping cranes? Although sandhill cranes are roughly the same size, most field guides and bird experts note that herons, except in rookeries, are solitary animals, whereas the crane is more social and can be found in large flocks outside of breeding season.
Herons usually stand and fly with their long necks in an S-shape; cranes fly with straight necks, in v-shaped flocks during migration. Great blue herons are not very vocal and are more frequently found near wetlands, while sandhill cranes vocalize often and can be found in many open habitats, from marshes to farm fields to suburban yards and golf courses.
Their range is quite restricted in Alaska and they are a rare visitor to Hawaii, but quite easy to find in the lower 48.
To see breeding and nesting behaviors, it’s worth a special trip to a heron rookery in the spring. There are several national wildlife refuges where you can look for nesting herons:
Visit the refuge Web sites for more information, and consider calling ahead to plan the best time to see nesting great blue herons.