WHEELING - The tall, long-legged bird known as the Great Blue Heron that dots the shores of area creeks and ponds seems to be growing in numbers, according to naturalist Scott Shalaway of Cameron.
Shalaway said while it's hard at times to monitor the bird - the largest of North American herons - he believes the population seems to be growing in several local nesting spots, especially the one along Middle Wheeling Creek, that has been around for years.
"The population certainly has not decreased - they probably are growing," Shalaway said, adding he recently counted at least 28 active nests in the tree tops of a nesting site near Middle Creek Elementary that can be easily seen from a section of Interstate 70 during the winter months when the trees are bare. "It's really a nice colony, because a lot of colonies I've seen have maybe 10 or 15 nests. Most of the year they're solitary individuals - you'll just see one along a stream or along a river or somewhere like that - but during the nesting season they get very social and they are communal nesters."
On any given day, one may see several herons searching for food in different locations along Big Wheeling Creek in the Elm Grove area and beyond the County Line Bridge into Marshall County.
According to National Geographic's website, Great Blue Herons prefer to nest in tall trees like the ones nesting along Middle Wheeling Creek, but will sometimes nest in low shrubs. They are expert fishers and snare their aquatic prey by walking slowly, or standing still for long periods of time and waiting for fish to come within range of their long necks and blade-like bills. The deathblow is delivered with a quick thrust of the sharp bill and the prey is swallowed whole. While they are best known as fishers, mice constitute a large part of their diet and they also eat insects and other small creatures.
Additionally, Great Blue Herons' can grow up to 4.5 feet in height and have a wide wingspan of 5.5 to 6.6 feet, making them easy to spot while in flight. They can cruise at speeds up to 30 miles an hour.
"They are so big and conspicuous that everybody notices them," Shalaway said.
He said blue herons will fly 10 miles or more at a time to feed, before returning to their nests with food. He said on a local level the nesting season seems to begin around mid-March and April. The babies commonly leave the nests during May and June.