PSA: Great Blue Herons Need Their Space

© Babsje (

Great blue heron poised in the Charles River – babsjeheron

If the Great Blue Heron can read this, you’re too close.

It bears repeating: If the Great Blue Heron can read this, you’re too close. Every so often going back a decade or so, I feel compelled to caution folks that Herons need their space. In the past few weeks, I have seen several photos of Herons that had obviously been flushed by photographers. Flushing a Heron is not good, it is a rookie mistake – even if it makes for a dynamic photo. In fact, birding ethics organizations from Audubon to the US Fish & Wildlife Service almost all universally say avoid flushing birds. Don’t get too close.

People who know me know that my motto is “Walk softly and carry a long lens.™” It is important to give wildlife an extra-wide margin of personal space to not endanger them. I take precautions to remain hidden from their view, including use of telephoto lenses and natural-cover hides.

In taking hundreds of thousands of photos over a couple of decades, I can count on two hands the number of times I was within 10 feet of a Heron who could see me. Half of those times happened when I was hidden under a tree canopy and the Heron didn’t see my kayak and dropped down to land literally next to my boat. And one time was because I stepped in to protect the Heron from fishing lines.

This is a critical time in the life cycle of Great Blue Herons, when chicks are learning to fly so they can fledge, or if they have already fledged they are learning survival skills that will prepare them for migration in a couple of short months. This is the time of year when Herons can frequently be spotted, and when novice birders or photographers put them at risk by getting too close. Interrupt a feeding adult Great Blue, and the chicks may go without a meal. Interrupt a feeding fledgling could ultimately mean life or death for the bird.

As a photographer, ask yourself:
Did you get that perfect shot, but flushed the fledgling in the process?
How long will your friends and family remember your photo?
How long will the fledgling remember the meal he missed or the calories he wasted fleeing you? 
Maybe only that single meal, those much-needed calories were his tipping point between life and death.

The post below was an earlier PSA rant about endangering Herons. Please humor me again.

“… Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves.”

Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder,”
In “A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories

Great blue heron fledglings practicing 24 hours before they fledged.

Great blue herons practicing 24 hours before they fledged.

The sleek kayak had been tugged up into the shrubbery on the hillside just south of the keyhole bridge. No, wait, make that a sleek kayak and a custom canoe nestling there in the bushes. How odd.

I had noticed the same two paddlers the day before, farther north. How could a person not notice their high-end boats and expert-looking water skills?

Fast forward a day, and there were those boats again, cruising the southern waters.  The two men beached their custom-made canoe on the tiny nesting island. I quickly paddled my kayak over and explained to them about the great blue heron nest and the eggs that were due to hatch within the next 10 days. They replied, “OK, we’re outta here,” and left right away. Success!

Keyhole tunnel portal to the southern waters.

Keyhole tunnel portal to the southern waters.

I should have expected that something was afoot when I noticed a white flag hanging off the promontory southwest of the keyhole tunnel the next morning, it wasn’t there the day before. I should have connected it to the two expert paddlers, but didn’t grasp what it foreshadowed.

The next morning, I was enroute to the secluded shady hide along the western shoreline, thinking to pull in and read a book while munching a bagel for breakfast, when I noticed a man in a red kayak heading for the island. I wanted to warn him off, and so spun my kayak around. As I was about to aim towards him, a red canoe came out of nowhere, making a beeline for the island, the woman in front paddling harder and faster than I’d ever seen in a canoe.

I intercepted them, positioning my kayak in their path and they started to curve around me back towards the island. By this time, the man in the red kayak had meandered around the island and maybe 20 yards to the south, not threatening the island, so I focused on the red canoe and explained to the woman that they needed to steer clear of the island due to the nesting herons and chicks that should be hatching soon. She got the message and she and her partner gave the island and nest a wide birth and paddled in the direction of the east shore. Whew.

Next, I paddled south of the island and to the shady hide on the opposite shore,  and turned around to face the island before settling in, when I noticed a green canoe perilously close to the east side of the island, within a foot of the shore, ducking under some tunnel-like branches and then exiting and paddling farther east.

Curious about their odd behavior, I got out the binoculars and saw something hanging from one of the lowest branches on that side of the island. There was a flash of red, and I remembered seeing it Saturday afternoon when I had dissuaded the two men in a canoe from hanging out there – the two who said to me “we’re outta here.” I thought it was red from the baseball cap one of the men was wearing yesterday. But maybe it wasn’t that at all.

By this point, the man in the red kayak had circled the island and was coming around the north side, very close, too close. I paddled up to him and explained about the nesting herons and incipient hatching. He took off his baseball cap, craned his head and neck backwards to look straight up into the trees at the nest, and then back down. He gave me a level gaze and laconically drawled “Well, I need to rest my kayak in a stable spot for a few minutes,” and pulled out a snack and settled in. Aaarrrgh, he was virtually at the base of the nesting tree, his red kayak shining like a beacon that the adult herons couldn’t possibly fail to notice.

I paddled back towards the west because there was now another green canoe heading straight for the island. I paddled alongside and explained to the young woman in front that they needed to steer clear of the island due to the nesting birds, and – to my relief and gratitude – they headed much farther south.

Then, I circled the south side of the island and ducked into the tree tunnel and saw the red thing. There was a plastic ribbon sash circling a low branch, the red ends flapping down about six inches. Suspended from a white cord was a sort of rectangular card with a large number written prominently on it. The cord was wrapped around the neck of the top of a cut-off white plastic milk-bottle with the another number hand-written on it, such that about five inches of the milk-bottle top was suspended mid-air about three feet above the surface of the water. I thought maybe it was a trap for mosquitoes – they sometimes try to detect virus-carrying mosquitoes with traps, but an open-bottomed milk bottle wouldn’t be a very effective trap.

Putting one and one together, I deduced that it was some sort of scavenger hunt.

A scavenger hunt using the nesting island as a way station.

I was, and still am, horrified.

Even though I had explained to the men who placed the scavenger hunt apparatus in the shrubs about the federally protected herons sitting on eggs in a nest on the tiny island, they chose the island as part of their game. Even though I explained about the eggs about to hatch to the man in the red kayak, even though he looked directly up at the heron’s nest, he still chose to park his boat on the island shore for his snack.

I cut down the offending dangling plastic red sash and the milk bottle apparatus, and as I pulled it into the boat I noticed some sort of red plastic fob dangling from the bottom, sort of like a very large clothespin or something strange. I had no idea what it was, probably a weight to keep things from blowing in the wind, and I pulled that into the kayak too, and stashed it all behind the seat back with my sneakers and socks. In that instant, in my own small way, I understood what Greenpeace might feel like.

I then quietly, nonchalantly paddled southeast a bit and circled back to the front of the island. As I was doing this, a silver-haired couple wearing circa 1960 vinyl PFDs proclaiming Boy Scout Troop NNNN was bearing down hard and fast on the island in an ancient silver aluminum canoe. I explained to the woman that they couldn’t approach the island because of the nesting birds and eggs due to hatch and I thought they were paying attention to me, but I was mistaken. They were heading closer and closer as they circled around to the back of the island.

In the meantime, I paddled up to the snacking man in the red kayak still beached on the island, literally to beseech him to leave before the heron abandons the nest. While I was trying to talk to him, the silver canoe came upon me from behind and rear-ended my boat. Outrageous lack of seamanship on a 700-acre body of water. I asked them to get away from the island and again explained about the nest and what would happen if they got too close for too long and the adult herons abandoned the nest.

My heart was in my throat again and I paddled away from the island, heading west. I turned the boat around, and the lunkheads in the silver canoe were still there. I boldly waved my left arm in broad sweeping strokes motioning them all away from the island. And I kept on motioning them away.

The silver canoe then came right up to me and the woman asked me “Did you see the remote?”

I had no idea what she was talking about and so honestly said “no.” It was only after they paddled away that I realized that the red plastic fob on the end of the milk carton string behind my seat back must have been the “remote,” whatever a remote is.

Father great blue heron has fled the nest and watches anxiously from the tall pines.

Father great blue heron has fled the nest and watches anxiously from the tall pines.

I paddled to a secluded spot on the northern shoreline of south lake and relocated the milk carton and dangling fob on the branch of a different bush, far enough from the island to not be a concern for the herons, but close enough to their original placement to not make a huge difference in their little game.

As I raised the binoculars,  I could tell by then that the adult heron was not in the nest. Would the adult return? All I could do was watch and wait. 

I lost track of time, but it seemed an eternity. 

I headed west a little bit more, turned around, and there in the sky was the adult, making a nice big circle and a perfect landing on the nesting tree! He quickly got back into position on the nest and hunkered down.

By this point in the afternoon, the silver canoe was gone, the red kayak was a fair distance away, and I needed to head back for the day, and so I turned my kayak towards home.

Just then, a middle-aged woman in a tiny tan kayak with a big black dog wearing it’s own adorable PFD passed by. I remarked about her cuddly first mate and she said he couldn’t wait to get out of the boat.

I then realized that they were going very fast, straight for the island. I called to her and said you can’t go the island, there are nesting herons with chicks due to hatch soon and she replied, “I’m doing an orienting weekend. I need to get to the remote.”

And on she paddled towards the island, as my blood ran cold. I could only imagine the havoc her dog would cause romping about the island floor.

If you’ve been following this blog, you already know that the eggs hatched, the two heron chicks fledged and they have both successfully migrated, fall and spring, and found their way back to their home at the lake. I am in awe of how they did that.

Photographer gets too close to a great blue heron nest while the nestlings are being fed by an adult.

Photographer gets too close to a great blue heron nest while the nestlings are being fed by an adult.

Between mid-June, 2012, when the above story took place, and August 12, 2012, when the herons fledged for good, there were many – too many – instances of human encroachment at the nesting island. The father heron in particular would leave the nest, and watch anxiously from tall pines across the channel.

Whenever I noticed people landing on the island, or venturing too close and jeopardizing the herons’ survival, I’d try to educate them, and often shared my binoculars to let them see the beauty of the herons.

Fellow photographers were often the worst offenders, so eager to get closer and closer to get that “perfect shot” of the baby birds.

What is the cost of people being careless or disrespectful in nature?

If you’re a nature lover, birder, photographer, boater, whatever, take a minute and read Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder,” and imagine that instead of a  butterfly, it’s a great blue heron.

And after your next nature outing, how would you answer these:

Did you and your children have a wonderful nature walk, but did the fledgling flush as your toddler squealed and clapped in delight at seeing the pretty birdie?

Did you and your group have a great afternoon orienteering, but did the mother heron veer away while taking fish back to the chicks because you ventured too close to the nest?

Did you and your friends have a fun time waterskiing, but did the father heron abandon his brood when your boat circled the nesting island too close one time too many?

Did you get that perfect shot, but flushed the fledgling in the process?

How long will your friends and family remember your photo? The waterskiing, orienteering, that particular nature walk?

How long will the fledgling remember the meal he missed or the calories he wasted fleeing you? 

Maybe only that single meal, those much-needed calories were his tipping point between life and death.

Read “A Sound of Thunder.”

Imagine that instead of a  butterfly, it’s a magnificent great blue heron.

Don’t be “that guy.”


Here are some great resources for birding/photography ethics:

The Jerk – ABA Blog by Ted Lee Eubanks

ABA Code of Birding Ethics

About the tagline of this post, it’s a bumper sticker I’d love to see:

“If the Heron Can Read This, You’re Too Close”


Thanks to Cee for her FOTD. I don’t know the name of the flowers but can imagine the fireflies flittering about just after sunset.
The amazing Lens Artists Tina, Patti, Amy, and Leya are still taking a much-deserved and much-needed break for the month of July. A recent Lens Artist challenge from them focused on Spots and Dots. Frankly I’m not sure if my fireflies are spots or if they’re dots!

Check out the Lens Artists’ beautiful photos here:

From Patti Lens Artists Weekly Photo Challenge 148: Spots and Dots .
From Tina Lens Artists Weekly Photo Challenge 148: Spots and Dots .

From Amy Lens Artists Weekly Photo Challenge 148: Spots and Dots .

From Leya Lens Artists Weekly Photo Challenge 148: Spots and Dots .

Folks, now that some areas are opening back up, please consider supporting your local Arts communities – whether music, theater, crafts, visual arts venues, and others. All have been impacted over the past year and they need your love.

My brick & mortar presence in Massachusetts dates back to 2009 in several local venues/galleries.

2015 (May), 2016 (March and July), 2018 (May, June, July), 2019 (December), 2020 (January) several one-woman photography shows at TCAN – The Center for Arts Natick
2018 (September, October) one-woman photography show at Natick Town Hall
2013 thru now 2021 Five Crows Gallery in Natick
2009 one-woman photography show at a local Audubon Sanctuary

From December 4 through January 28, 2020, my Great Blue Heron photographs were once again on display on the walls of the lobby and theater in a free one-woman show at the Summer Street Gallery, of The Center for Arts in Natick.

Many of the photos in the exhibit were shown for the first time, and do not appear on the blog. As always, many of the photos were taken on the waterways of the Charles River watershed.

Thanks to Erica V and WordPress for the recent WPC: Place in the World. My favorite place is where the Herons are, of course it is. And the Herons? Their place is near the water, but also on the gallery walls and my blog. How else can I share them with you?

Thanks also to Ben H and WordPress for their WPC Challenge: Liquid. The Herons are drawn to water, as am I.

Remember: Walk softly and carry a long lens.™

May the Muse be with you.™

The Tao of Feathers™

© 2003-2021 Babsje. (

Great Blue Heron, TCAN, Five Crows, Natick

Posted on July 13, 2021, in # Lens-Artists, ardea herodias, Birds, Great Blue Heron, Nature Photography, Photo Essay, Photography, Wildlife Photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I didn’t even know flushing was a concept or word. I googled it. It is just so bad. I like to let wild birds and animals come closer to me, which they often do, based on their own free will, but they come even closer to my son.

    • Thanks Cindy. They must be drawn to you because you and your sin have that St. Francis of Assisi gene! ❤ There are many wild animals who come to know and trust people, and some even imprint on a human. Best, Babsje

    • Oops. My first reply to you should have said “because you and your son have the St. Francis of Assisi gene” and not you and your sin. My bad sorry. Best, Babsje

  2. What a worry Babsje, especially at nesting time. Orienteering and Kayak groups usually have a strict code of conduct around wildlife so this was very disappointing to see. Thankfully the heron chicks hatched and fledged successfully 💜🙏

    • Many thanks for your very thoughtful comment! Yes, those chicks fledged and probably have had their own chicks and even grand-chicks by now but that was a very intense weekend for all of us! Also btw I have enjoyed your delightful photos and blog for quite a while. Best, Babsje

  3. This was very interesting Babsje. There is a heron rookery on Grosse Ile and I’ve seen it in photos by local photographers that I follow through the Detroit Audubon Society, though I’ve never seen it personally. The resident heron at the Park where I walk daily has not been around much this Summer and it may have something to do with the water level at the Creek which is much higher than usual due to all the rain we’ve had the last six weeks. That heron often wades in the Creek, or perches on the ledge and bends over to catch fish. I read a story recently about a drone that destroyed an entire generation of shorebirds in California. The Elegant Terns abandoned their eggs on the shore as a result of someone carelessly flying a drone near this property despite being forbidden in the area.

    • Hi Linda. I read about that drone incident – something like 3,000 were lost. Local media here recently covered a little-known Heron rookery… Well it was little-known before they splashed it all over the media. Same for the Snowy Owl incursion a few years ago where photographers were tripping over themselves to publish the latest locations and also baiting the Owls with mice to get that perfect shot. Circling back to Great Blue Herons. Homo Sapiens is the apex predator that is the biggest threat to the Herons. Yes, Hawks, Owls, Eagles etc are predators, even Nature with weather, microbursts, etc, but Man is the biggest threat. Putting soapbox away now. Best, Babsje

      • That’s a shame Babsje and yes, humans are the worse predators as they are often only out for a good time like in your story. I saw a heron video recently where some fishermen in Mexico I believe, rescued a heron that was hanging from a tree branch thanks to a piece of fishing line and hook that got into its beak. They took great pains to save the heron, who was very patient and when done flew away in a hurry, just glad for its freedom. We had a snowy owl here a few years ago and it was sighted in Downtown Detroit. People would see it gliding past their office windows and post pictures on the local Audubon Society site.

        • Thanks Linda. My Snowy Owl encounter found me without a camera, so it’s just a lovely memory. The imagery of that Heron hanging isn’t something I would be able to “un-see” I’m glad their rescue was a success. Best, Babsje

          • They are beautiful birds Babsje. I’ve never seen an owl before and it is on my annual birdie bucket list to see and hopefully photograph if I’m lucky. I understood that Snowy Owl was spotted at Point Mouillee Marsh several times by birders. It returned several years but has not been back recently. The heron hanging was a grim sight and I was not sure I wanted to view the video but read the story beforehand, then knew it was a successful rescue.

      • Babsje – Here is the story and video of the heron rescue if you’ve not seen it before:

        • Thanks Linda. I’m happy the rescue succeeded but I would not be able to erase the hanging bird image from the start of the rescue. I have seen others hung on wires and can’t un-see them even after a long time. They are traumatic. Best. Babsje

          • I agree with you Babsje. I interact with the birds and squirrels at the house and the Park and I worry about Cooper’s Hawks attacking them, something that does occur and something I could not “unsee” and would be disturbing for me to see.

  4. What a tense series of interactions! It sounds like some people are great once they understand but others are not. The herons are fortunate to have had you watching out for them. Have you ever felt truly in danger from people who just wouldn’t let it go?

    • Hi Katherine. Glad you appreciated this story. Yes, most people eventually got the message that weekend of the paddling orienteering outing, but it was very tense for a while. That group didn’t scare me personally. Another group of characters that you wouldn’t want to encounter in a dark alley frightened me for a few minutes until I got them talking. I have been stalked at the lake by one creep and consequently am always armed with pink girly mace, but his motive has nothing to do with Herons or wildlife. I am so glad those Heron chicks flourished despite the humans invading their island that day. Best, Babsje

  5. Babsje, thank you for being such an ardent defender of the living and setting a high standard for the rest of us. GWH

    • Hi Gary. Many thanks for your generous compliment. I hope things are well for you and family in Montana and that you are able to be on the water as often as you wish. Best, Babsje

  6. you are the Saint for Herons Babsje! Saint Babsje……I think St.Frances of Assisi is the patron Saint for animals.

  7. I’ve heard it said that you just can’t fix stupid. I believe it’s true! 🙄

  8. Inderdaad dieren mag men nooit opjagen

    • Hi Marylou. Many thanks for saying that the animals should never be hunted. I agree – flushing the Herons is unnecessary and harmful! Best, Babsje

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