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Tricolored Heron

Dear Bird Folks,

An off-Cape friend sent me a note about a Tricolored Heron that was being seen in Harwich, but she didn’t know the exact location. Have you heard about this sighting? Do you know where it was, and if so, can anyone go there to look for it?

– Ida, Dennis, MA


Yes, yes, and yes, Ida,

Yes, I did hear about the heron, and yes, I do know where it was seen, and yes, anyone can go there to look for it…even you. (I don’t really know why I added that “even you” part; it just seemed to fit.) The Tricolored Heron was seen feeding in the Bell’s Neck Conservation Lands in West Harwich. This area has long been a great place to see rarities, and is a well-known destination for many of the areas top birders…even me. (See what I mean?)

Back in the late ‘70s, I worked within walking distance of Bell’s Neck. Whenever we had a break, I would grab my binoculars and head over there. Birding wasn’t nearly as popular in those days, so I never told anyone where I was going or what I was doing, which made some people wonder. In hindsight, I probably should have just explained it to everyone, although I’m not sure if saying that I was going to look for a Tricolored Heron would have cleared things up very much.

What makes the Bell’s Neck Conservation Lands so special is Bells Neck Rd. (Don’t ask me why one neck is written “Bell’s” and the other neck is “Bells.” I have enough trouble dealing with the apostrophe in my own name.) When standing in the middle of this simple dirt road, you’ll have a freshwater reservoir just a few feet to the west, and just a few feet to the east is a tidal lagoon. This means, with little effort, birders can find species that prefer those two distinctly different habitats. Most Cape towns also have both types of habitats, but they are often miles apart. On Bells Neck Road, however, if you want to see freshwater ducks or shorebirds feeding on a mudflat, all you have to do is turn your head one way or the other. This is why I snuck out of work with my binoculars so often in the 1970s.

Speaking of the 1970s: Back then it wasn’t possible to see a Tricolored Heron feeding in Bell’s Neck Marsh…or any other marsh. That’s because this bird used to be called a Louisiana Heron, until its name was changed one day. I’m not sure of the reason for the new name, but I blame Brown Pelicans. Why? Louisiana is the Pelican State and apparently the pelicans didn’t like sharing the Louisiana spotlight with a lowly heron, so they lobbied for the name change. I have no proof that the pelicans did this, but come on. It’s obvious.

When it comes to herons and egrets, Cape Cod may not be Florida (or Louisiana), but we still see our share of these lanky birds each spring and summer. But Tricolored Herons are southern birds and only occasionally breed this far north. From a distance, Tricolored Herons look a bit like baby Great Blues Herons, only it’s a much smaller bird with a white belly and an obvious white line running down the front of its throat. And while we are on the topic of throats, it’s hard to imagine a bird with a thinner neck than a tricolored. All herons tend to have skinny necks, but the tricolored neck is super-thin, looking like something that could be used to unlock a car door.

The Great Blue Heron eats a huge variety of prey including bass, turtles and water birds. It will also grab mammals as large as rats, ground squirrels and gophers…and swallow them whole. (Can you imagine?) The frail-looking Tricolored Heron has a less diverse diet. Its pipe cleaner-sized neck looks as if it could only swallow spaghetti, but it does handle smaller fish, frogs, and insects. Herons typically hunt by standing still in shallow water and grabbing whatever swims past them. The tricolored can also be an active feeder, moving through the water quickly, with its wings splayed out. Some experts think the open wings may provide the energetic bird with needed balance, while others believe spreading the wings helps reduce glare on the water and thus improve visibility. I’ll let you decide which is the real reason.

We humans have our esophagus in the front of our neck, but the heron’s esophagus curls around back, behind its neck bones. What is the reason for that, you ask? When a heron lurches forward to catch a fish, it strikes with great speed and force. Evolution has moved the esophagus behind vertebrae in order to protect the bird’s windpipe and to keep its Adam’s apple from being damaged while fishing. (Yes, I know herons don’t actually have Adam’s apples, and it’s a good thing they don’t. If they did, spaghetti could get tangled in it.)

Tricolored Herons are coastal breeders and don’t often venture far inland. They also prefer life in the South. The last I heard, Tuckernuck Island is their only nesting site here in Massachusetts. Don’t ask me how the birds ended up on Tuckernuck. I don’t even know where it is myself.

You should definitely check out the birds at Bell’s Neck, Ida. On the same day that heron was reported, four Great Egrets, sixteen Snowy Egrets and fourteen Glossy Ibis were also seen there. FYI: If you decide to go, you should go soon, because as things warm up, it can become buggy. But the good news is: if you lock your keys in your car, you can ask the heron to use its skinny neck to help you open the door. I’ll bet it would work.