VCU Rice Center

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News and events
Sep. 26, 2013

Great blue herons rebound in the Chesapeake Bay
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Breeding populations of great blue herons have made a dramatic comeback within the Chesapeake Bay according to a 2013 survey conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology. As with bald eagles and osprey, great blue heron populations suffered deep declines during the DDT era, reaching a low in the late 1960s of approximately a dozen known breeding colonies. The 2013 survey documented 14,126 pairs within 407 breeding colonies making the species the most widespread and abundant breeding waterbird in the Chesapeake Bay. The population would consume an estimated 8,200 metric tons of fish annually. Colonies were documented within every county along the tidal reach of the estuary.

An interesting finding of the survey is that the size of breeding colonies has been declining for more than a decade. The average colony size in 2013 was 35 pairs, compared to more than 110 pairs in 1985. Large colonies that were stable for decades have begun to splinter and scatter across the landscape. Although the underlying cause of the decline remains unclear, one possible contributing factor may be the recovery of bald eagles. Bald eagles now nest in a growing number of heron colonies. The largest colony in the Chesapeake Bay on Pooles Island (1,450 pairs) now contains four bald eagle nests, and the second largest colony on Mason Neck (1,250 pairs) now contains two eagle nests.

In addition to great blue herons, the survey also included great egrets. More associated with coastal waters and never as common as great blue herons in the Chesapeake Bay, 1,775 egret pairs were found in 39 colonies. This number represents a nearly threefold increase in the population over the past 30 years.

The 2013 aerial survey conducted by Bryan Watts and Bart Paxton required 200 hours of flying and covered more than 900 tidal tributaries of the Chesapeake. Funding for the survey was provided by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and The Center for Conservation Biology. The Center for Conservation Biology is a research unit within the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.

map
Map of great blue heron and great egret colonies along tidal tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Colonies were mapped and surveyed as part of a 2013 population assessment.

herons
Wings of great blue heron in bald eagle nest with chicks along the Chickahominy River. Bald eagles may be altering heron colony dynamics. Photo by Bryan Watts.

egrets
Brood of great egrets in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Bryan Watts.