The Big Blue

As a child, my mother instilled in me her love of birds. I used to sit with her field guides and identify species as they landed on the feeders just outside our windows. My mom further encouraged my fascination by allowing me to incubate quail eggs and raise both ducks and chickens. Her only objections came when I set live traps with seed near her feeders. Nonetheless, I was destined to be a birder. Of all the bird species I have encountered, my favorite remains the long-legged bird I grew up watching hunt at the lake by my house: The Great Blue Heron.


Blue herons are large birds with wingspans reaching up to 6 feet. Adults display greyish blue bodies with long black plumes flowing off the back of their heads and thighs the color of pine bark. When they fly, their long necks coil back much like a snake ready to strike. These birds have specialized feathers on their chest that are continuously growing, similar to hair. Blue herons grip these feathers with their feet and use them like washcloths to remove fish oils and other slime from their feathers. Little known fact: there is a white color variant great blue heron found in southern Florida and Eastern Mexico. (See picture below) #NotAnEgret


These magnificent creatures are also deeply integrated into the fabric of the food webs they reside in. The blue heron’s predator-prey interactions have shown to be quite complex. For instance, in the Southeastern United States, blue heron nest colonies are commonly found above alligator infested waters. While this might seem unusual, this is a mutualistic relationship. By nesting in the trees above alligator territory, herons make it difficult for other animals to climb up and eat their eggs. Waterbirds typically hatch more offspring than they can feed. Runts are bumped out by larger chicks and become alligator food. Furthermore, the birds’ feces adds nutrients to ground below nests, leading to a higher abundance of fish and reptiles… food for both species.

*Pictured below is a great blue heron making off with a young alligator.*


In my mind, blue herons are the ecological masters of North America. What about bears and other predatory mammals, you say?  While these types of creatures can overpower all they encounter and have no natural predators, they are not necessarily the best adapted species for the environments of our continent. In winter months, when food is scarce, bears are forced to hibernate and wolves must travel long distances in pursuit of infrequent prey. Blue herons, on the other hand, simply fly to warmer climates where food is abundant. Wings seem to be a necessary adaptation when conquering the environments of an entire continent. Wings allow blue herons to spend their summers from Alaska to Nova Scotia and their winters anywhere from the Galapagos Islands to the West Indies.


Wings are not the only attribute that makes the great blue heron note worthy. Birds of Prey, such as the bald eagle, also have wings, but these birds’ distribution and territory is limited by foraging strategy and diet. When bald eagles hunt, they perch on branches overlooking bodies of water and wait for a fish to present itself. In contrast, blue herons actively forage for prey in the water and feed on a wider variety of organisms, including: shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, fish, snakes, lizards, frogs, rodents, and small birds. Their diverse diet is plentiful and evenly distributed, enabling them remain further north later into winter. This allows them to dominate territory with little to no competition.


I have a tendency to regularly encounter these birds. I have seen them spear sea trout on the flats of gulf coast barrier islands, perch along Appalachian Mountain streams, and pluck Dungeness from Oregon’s estuaries. Every time I see a blue heron, I’m filled with a sense of security and amazement that makes me feel like a child. I like to think of them as a good omen and a reminder that my home is greater than the state I was raised in.


I’m not exactly sure where my love for these birds comes from, but they seem to be a pretty common theme in my life. It might come as no surprise that the organization I volunteer for back home and the research reserve I was placed at through the Summer Scholars program share a particular mascot…




An Update from the South Coast

A lot has happened since my last post. This week alone I have worked on an ODFW lamprey assessment by electrofishing Winchester Creek’s headwaters, participated in a Sea Grant funded eel grass monitoring survey, and seined for juvenile fish with visiting scientists from OSU. Most importantly, I have successfully completed all of my crab sampling in the South Slough Research Reserve. After deploying 160 traps, I processed over 2,100 crabs in just 12 days. Of these only 86 were the invasive green crabs I was targeting.

Though I had wished to collected more data on the species, my mentor and her colleagues were pleased with my results. I found green crabs in locations they have never been found before. My data also indicates the highest abundance of these crabs in the Coos estuary in the last 19 years. I am currently collaborating with a professor from OSU to publish a report on the status of the European Green Crab along Oregon’s Coast. Please enjoy the pictures below taken on my last day of sampling.




An Unexpected Catch

Over the past few weeks of fish seining I have observed a wide variety of fish species ranging from salmon and flounder to gunnels and pipefish. Most fish we catch are juvenile and under 1 ft in length. Of all of the species I expected to encounter during my work this summer, a sturgeon was not even on my radar. It was to my surprise last week when we found one in the bag of our net. I was intrigued by this amazing creature and couldn’t help but read up on these fish in my free time.

Oregon is home to two different species of sturgeon: the green sturgeon and the white sturgeon. While white sturgeons’ populations are healthy enough for commercial and recreational fishing, the green sturgeon are a protected species.

Green sturgeon are seldom collected with seine nets in South Slough. In fact, the last green sturgeon collected by SSNERR was during a similar monitoring program in 1986. Coming across one of these dinosaur like fish was quite the treat. Their bodies have changed little over the last 200 million years and are lined with rows of bony plates. The green sturgeon’s are especially pointed and sharp. These fish also have barbels on the underside of their snout that they use to navigate along riverbeds and find their prey.

Unfortunately, certain characteristics of sturgeon put them at risk of extinction. First off, females full of eggs have historically been over-harvested to provide markets with caviar. The average lifespan of a sturgeon is 50-60 and sexual maturity is not reached until around age 15. This heightens the risk of a population collapse do to over-fishing. If all of this wasn’t enough, most of these fish are anadromous, meaning they feed in coastal waters and spawn in freshwater. As rivers are dammed, anadromous fish lose critical spawning habitat and populations most often decline.

As my understanding of Oregon’s coastal fish species grows, so does my appreciation for the work South Slough conducts to protect these species. I am excited to come into the lab each day, because I know the data we collect will be used to manage and conserve estuarine ecosystems. I’m grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to future unexpected catches.



Welcome 2016 Summer Scholars!

Summer Scholars 2016

Summer Scholars, 2016

Today we kicked off our 2016 Summer Scholars season with an orientation for the 10 undergraduates who will be spending their summer working on research and public engagement projects with natural resource agencies on the Oregon coast: Angus Thies, Lexi Brewer, Skyler Elmstrom, Claire Mullaney, Erin Horkin,  Stephanie Ng, Collin Williams, Edward Kim, Justin Dalaha and Jessica Vaccare.

This is the largest class of Summer Scholars we’ve hosted to date, and we look forward to reading their posts about their experiences in our Sea Grant Scholars blog.

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