Saturday, October 11, 2014

Egrets and Herons on Dry Land

Great Egret hunting on dry land.

Periodically, I get questions ranging from curiosity to alarm upon finding herons or egrets far from lakes, streams or estuaries.  Herons and egrets are so closely associated with water that many people do not realize herons and egrets are more than water birds.  In addition to hunting in large bodies of water, you will also find herons and egrets of many kinds feasting in small creeks at creek apartments, small backyard ponds, and agricultural fields, berms, freeway offramps,also in grasslands where there are no bodies of water.  In addition to fish, amphibians, and mollusks, Herons and egrets also eat insects, small reptiles, and small mammals such as rats, gophers, and moles.  They can be found on land far away from obvious sources of water.

Snowy Egret on the Grass at Clark Regional Park

However, there is more water around than you may think, and sometimes the heron or egret you see is not very far from water at all.  People are not always aware of parks with small lakes and streams.  In Orange County there are numerous parks which have lakes and streams that are stocked with fish.  The same is true of Los Angeles.  But there is another water source birds frequent other than lakes, rivers, and oceans that animals frequent:  the watershed.  

Great Egret in the grass at San Jacinto Wildlife Area.

Rain and the runoff from the water we use flow to the ocean.  We don't often think about how it flows there.  But like a body's circulatory system, the land we live on has a system for getting rid of excess water that does not sink into the ground and fill up the aquifers.  It is called the watershed.  

Originally it was a natural system of small streams and rivers.  However, we have lined most of the watersheds in cities and suburban areas with concrete.  You may not realize that Orange County's 350 miles of regional flood control channels and drainage branch through your city and down to the ocean.  In fact, you are probably so used to seeing it that it does not register at all.  The drainage system that flows through our cities and towns supports a lot of wildlife including herons, egrets, shore birds, fish, coyotes, and much, much more.  If you stop and look down into that fenced drainage ditch, you may be surprised to find ducks, geese, egrets, herons, and shorebirds

Great Egret

Coyotes and other animals use the watershed to travel in much of Orange County through drainage ditches, canals, streams, and rivers.  They disappear into the drainage ditches and reappear somewhere entirely different. So the egret or heron you see flying so far from water in reality is never very far from a drainage ditch, canal, stream, or river.  How do the fish get into the drainage ditches, canals, streams, and rivers?  Well, lots of ways, but one way is on the feet of the birds.  Birds fish in a place that either naturally has fish or is stocked with fish, and the fish eggs stick to their feet.  The birds fly off and then land in a new water source with no fish. The fish eggs fall off their feet into the new stream, lake canal, or drainage ditch, and voila!  A new water source now has fish in it.

Great Blue Heron hunting in the grass on the mesa at Bolsa Chica

Herons and egrets forage most commonly in the water or near it, but sometimes egrets and herons forage for small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians on dry land. They have a lot of variety in their diets, so don't be surprised to find egrets and herons on the hill top, in a field, or hunting on the grass on your local freeway offramp. They do hunt on dry land. They will fly through your city where you know of no lake or stream.  They are usually near some water, but even if they weren't there is no cause for alarm.  They hunt on dry land, too.  Enjoy them where you see them.  Egrets and herons are beautiful in the water or on dry land.   Enjoy watching them wherever you live in Orange County.

  Video by Ron Scholl.  From his channel ronlouisscholl's channel. 

Check out Ron's channel.

From Michael Bukay at  Check out Michael's website.  He has some amazing nature videos.



 Links and Resources


Watershed Management Areas

Link to OC Watershed Management website


Watershed, What Is It? 

OC Birder Girl post on understanding the watershed.

The Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns of Orange County

OC Birder Girl post about the herons, egrets, and bitterns of Orange County, California.