Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Episode 478 (6-24-19): The Little Blue Heron Starts Out White

Click to listen to episode (3:44).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 6-21-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of June 24, 2019.

SOUND – ~ 5 sec – Little Blue Heron call and fishing

This week, those croak and splash sounds introduce a wetland bird that’s fairly common but not very obvious, is a slow methodical hunter, and drastically changes color between its juvenile and adult stages.  Have a listen for about 10 seconds to some more sounds, and see if you can guess this creature.  And here’s a hint: this bird’s prey will become a little blue.

SOUNDS - ~10 sec – Little Blue Heron calls

If you guessed a Little Blue Heron, you’re right!  About half as tall as the Great Blue Heron, the Little Blue Heron is one of 12 North American species in the bird family of herons, egrets, night-herons, and bitterns.  The Little Blue is found in marshes and other aquatic areas along the southeastern United States coastline.  It’s a common summer and breeding resident in Virginia’s Coastal Plain region, although its Virginia population faces some threat from wetland draining, sea-level rise, and other habitat loss, according to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.  The Little Blue is slow and deliberate as it hunts in shallow water for fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects. Its eggs, in turn, are preyed upon by various mammals and other birds.

The Little Blue is notable among the heron family for the color change from juveniles to adults.  While adults have a bluish body and a purplish head and neck, the immature birds have all white feathers, changing to a mix of white and blue after the first year’s molt.  According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the white coloration may help Little Blue Herons survive their first year by making them more tolerated within mixed colonies of Snowy Egrets and other white adult herons.  It’s thought that in those mixed colonies, the young Little Blues may catch more fish and gain some protection from predators.

With their changing appearance and their ecological roles, Little Blue Herons add color and diversity to summer in Virginia’s Coastal Plain.

Thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for this week’s opening sounds, and to Lang Elliott for the featured sounds, from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  We close with another brief burst from a Little Blue Heron, accompanied by other birds, courtesy of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

SOUNDS - ~7 sec –Little Blue Heron followed by Red-winged Blackbird and other species


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The opening and closing Little Blue Heron sounds were from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Digital Library, online at; the Little Blue Heron recording specifically is online at

The second set of Little Blue Heron sounds was taken from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott, whose work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site,

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at

Blue Heron (or Crane) painting originally published between 1827 and 1838 by John James Audubon in Birds of America (plate CCCVII [307]), as reprinted in 1985 by Abbeville Press, New York.  The painting includes an adult (foreground) and an immature bird (left) with mottled white coloration.  Photo taken June 24, 2019, from the reprint copy (no. 6 of 350 copies printed in 1985) owned by Special Collections of Virginia Tech Libraries.  Virginia Water Radio thanks Special Collections for permission to photograph their copy and for their assistance. Information about Birds of America is available from the National Audubon Society, online at

Little Blue Heron in Florida, date not identified.  Photo by Lee Karney, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at, accessed 6-24-19; specific URL for the photo is

Juvenile Little Blue Heron at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia, Penn., date not identified. Photo by Bill Buchanan, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at, accessed 6-26-19; specific URL for the photo is


The scientific name for the Little Blue Heron is Egretta caerulea.

Here are some points about the Little Blue Heron, excerpted from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Little Blue Heron,” online at

Physical Description

“Small, dark heron; purplish maroon head and neck; whitish on chin and throat; bill dark gray, distal third nearly black; legs and feet between pearl gray and turquoise; length=25-29 in.; wingspread to about 41 inches.”

Distribution in Virginia

“Breeds along coast and barrier islands, post-breeding dispersal further inland…. [A]rrives in Virginia early April, leaves Oct.-Nov.


“Breeding season in Virginia [is] mid-April-June; incubation period 22-24 days, [and] both parents participate. …Thought to be single-brooded; sexual maturity at 1 year. … [Nest] in mixed colonies (segregated); occasionally male builds nest prior to pair formation but, usually, gathers materials while female weaves; seldom reuse old nest; favored site is few feet above ground or water in…willows, buttonbushes, and red maples….”


“Territory selected by male (larger than subsequent territory of pair); used for hostile and sexual displays, copulation and nesting; feeding territories defended more vigorously during non-breeding season. [When foraging for food,] prefers freshwater marsh, [and[ waits for prey.”

Population Status

“Loss of habitat due to draining, dredging and filling [of] wetlands, and coastal urbanization. …The greatest threats to the species in [Virginia] are loss of suitable breeding habitat to [sea-level rise] and climate change effects, and to a lesser extent, predator impacts.  Most breeding sites are under permanent protection from development and other human activities.  Predator management, area closures, signage, and outreach efforts should continue on the barrier islands where this species nests.  Future management measures should include area closures, signage, and outreach efforts at Chesapeake Bay and western shore sites and the identification and purchase of suitable inshore high marshes to ensure habitat is available as coastal fringe marshes subside or become permanently inundated.”


Used for Audio

Audubon Society, “Little Blue Heron,” online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at The Little Blue Heron entry specifically is online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists’ Union., “Birds of North America Online”, online at (subscription required). The Little Blue Heron entry specifically is online at

Alice Jane Lippson and Robert L. Lippson, Life in the Chesapeake Bay, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2006.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2001.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “Fish and Wildlife Information Service/Little Blue Heron,” online at

For More Information about Herons and Other Birds

BirdNote®, a daily broadcast/podcast on birds, online at

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “E-bird,” online at  This program was featured in Virginia Water Radio Episode 440, 10-1-18.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID,” online at  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at  The Society is non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at  The site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.

Following are links to some other episodes on birds in the family of herons, egrets, night-herons, and bitterns.

Episode 118, 7/9/12 – Summertime sampler of birds, including Great Blue Heron.
Episode 127, 9/10/12 – Green Heron.
Episode 183, 10/14/13 – fall bird migration, including Green Heron and Snowy Egret.
Episode 235, 10/13/14 – Black-crowned Night Heron.
Episode 277, 8/10/15 – Great Blue Heron and Great Egret.
Episode 430, 7/23/18 – marsh birds in Virginia, including Great Blue Heron and Least Bittern.


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
4.9 – Va. natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
2.4 – life cycles.
3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.
3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystem.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Va. watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring.

Life Science Course
LS.4 – organisms’ classification based on features.
LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.
LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.
LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Biology Course
BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

Government Course
GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.
GOVT.15 – role of government in Va. and U.S. economies, including examining environmental issues and property rights.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.