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Wildlife encounters: 1st entry, the great blue heron


Great blue heron about to swallow a freshly caught fish from Lake Phalen.

Great blue heron about to swallow a freshly caught fish from Lake Phalen.

By Brett Stolpestad

I don’t know much about great blue herons, but I do know that they are cool, amazing birds.

Last week my crew [YO2] was sent to Lake Phalen to pull the well-known invasive garlic mustard and repair some fencing along the lakeshore. As we made our way along the western side of the lake, we saw countless red-winged blackbirds darting aggressively through the air. Occasionally we would see a cormorant flying across the water or diving for fish, but what really caught my attention was the slow, silent flight of great blue herons overhead. With a massive five-to-six foot wingspan, the herons seemed to glide effortlessly through the air with their long necks curled into an elegant S-shape.

As we made our way down the fence line, our crew saw herons flying above a marshy, reeded area along the southwestern corner of the lake, as wetlands are typically a preferred habitat of the great blue heron. There we saw a heron wading through the water with its long, slender legs supporting its tall three-foot frame. Before I could catch a clear glimpse, it had flown from the bank and over the trees behind me.


Great blue heron waded silently through the water beyond the grass, trees and shrubs. 

Great blue heron waded silently through the water beyond the grass, trees and shrubs. 

As we packed up for the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the regal Lake Phalen herons. Inevitably, I became slightly obsessed with common yet beautiful birds. The next day I decided to go back to the lake with my camera. I knew I would find a heron or two along the western edge so I went back to the wetland area and waited. Within an hour, a heron flew straight over my head, pivoted and dove down for a fish. It beat its wings several times, lifting itself out of the water before flying away smoothly down the shoreline. Of course, I wasn’t able to capture a single sharp image of that amazing encounter.

Waiting a bit longer by the lakeshore, I finally spotted another heron wading in the shallows less than 100 yards away. I walked over to it as calmly as I could, despite being terribly excited. It was moving slowly, staring down at the water until, suddenly, it snatched a fish in its long beak. Almost immediately, the heron swallowed the fish whole and flew away. Ecstatic, I decided to follow it for a bit longer.


Great blue heron stood still over the algae-topped water of Lake Phalen.

Great blue heron stood still over the algae-topped water of Lake Phalen.

The bird landed again nearly 50 yards away from where it had caught its lunch moments before. It stood straight and motionless in the water, despite being pestered constantly by a persistent red-winged blackbird. Eventually the heron’s patience must have expired; it ascended calmly out of the water and into the air, the blackbird chasing it down the shoreline. I watched the great blue heron glide silently over the water until it finally faded out of sight. 


Red-winged blackbird chased a heron down the Lake Phalen shoreline. 

Red-winged blackbird chased a heron down the Lake Phalen shoreline.