The early morning sun is a fuzzy red ball in the dense fog. It’s hard to tell where the fog stops and the water starts. Your eyes strain to pick out the next rock or riffle before you’re upon it. The boat glides silently on the water; the only sound is the water dripping off your paddle as you scan the river.
Gggrrrruuuaaannnkkk! The bellow shatters the silence, followed by loud splashes, then the rhythmic thuds of large wings in the foggy abyss; a dark shadow approaches in the fog. The archaeopteryx – oh, wait, that can’t be an archaeopteryx – it’s much too large! It can only be one thing – a great blue heron.
This modern-day avian dinosaur, which can reach a height of four feet, is more than twice as large as its eons-old ancestor the archaeopteryx and in flight the great blue might evoke images of that other flying lizard the pterodactyl, with it’s slow deep wingbeats, long trailing legs and it’s big-headed appearance. The heron gets that exaggerated head look because it flies with its head close to its body, its long neck curved “S” like. Cranes, on the other hand fly with their necks extended.
This large blue-gray wader with its black and white head can frequently be seen stalking the shallow waters of the French Broad looking for prey. Prey could be anything from frogs, to insects, to small mammals and/or reptiles to fish. The heron has a long, strong, sharp beak. It will grab smaller prey in its mandibles but it often uses its spear-like beak to impale larger fish. Great blue herons nest in the area and can be see year round on the French Broad.
Its smaller cousin, the green heron, may be seen along the French Broad from late spring till early fall. Green herons nest in the region but they overwinter from South Florida all the way to northern South America. This crow-sized little heron might, if stretched, reach two feet tall. The adult’s back is a rich teal color and its neck and face are a rich chestnut – the throat is white and it has a dark cap.
The green heron, formerly “little green heron” is also known by a couple of descriptive colloquial names, both related to calls. Skeow is one and relates to its loud “skkeooww” alarm call. To the Cajuns of South Louisiana the green heron is known as “kop – kop” for another common call it makes when flushed from its marshy habitat.
The green heron is an expert fisherbird. It will use baits, both live (insects, earthworms) and artificial (twigs, feathers) to attract fish, which it either grabs or spears. The green heron feeds in very shallow water (four inches or so) and feeds on crustaceans, amphibians, fish, reptiles and insects.
Either or both of these avian dinosaurs may be found along the French Broad. To enhance your chances of seeing one or both try hitting the water in the early morning or evening when these stalkers are more active.