A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Our largest wading bird and one of the largest birds normally present in Sonoma County. An uncommon but widespread year-round resident. Likely to be found along large streams, at farm and sewer ponds, in flooded fields (sometimes dry fields), and at the coast. Almost always present at Gaffney Point, at Bodega Bay. Nests colonially, building large platforms of sticks, usually in large Eucalyptus trees or redwoods, in scattered heronries around the county. Often seen standing stock still, knee-deep in water, watching for fish, frogs, or other food. Usually solitary, except when breeding.

Our only large heron. Non-birders often mistakenly call these birds cranes. While Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) has been recorded in Sonoma County, it is very rare here. Our other common large waders are the all-white Great Egret (Ardea alba) and the likewise all-white Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)--both markedly smaller birds. Green Heron (Butorides virescens) is a much smaller bird with very different coloration.

Adult Great Blue Heron is mostly blue-grey but has a paler, streaked belly; slightly pinkish-grey neck with a white central stripe flanked by ragged black lines; reddish "thighs"; a white crown and white jowls; shaggy black plumes on the head (tucked down in the photo above); dark line extending over eye; a dark reddish or black patch at the "shoulder"; dull, yellowish legs. The color of the long, dagger-like bill is somewhat variable. The bills of immature birds are dark on top, yellow below. The bill is usually all yellow in fully adult birds, but often shades into dark grey on top in younger birds that may otherwise have adult characteristics. Young birds are browner overall than adults and look mottled, with fringes on the feathers. They lack the head plumes and the white crown of adults (photo below). Great Blue Heron often has longer, shaggy plumes at the base of the neck and to a lesser extent on the back. During breeding season, these become conspicuous. Wispier dark head plumes grow in as well. In flight, Great Blue Heron flies with neck tucked (photo below).

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 23

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 146

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 30

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 114

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 112

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 129-130

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 42

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 61

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 105

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 152

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 19, 122-123, 187

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 58-59, 60, 61, 69, 151, 152

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 19

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 46

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 84

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 110

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 56

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 125

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 93

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Great Blue Heron



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Great Blue Heron, Lake Ralphine, October 31, 2011

Immature Great Blue Heron, Spring Lake, December 17, 2009

Note mottled overall appearance and dark cap, two-toned bill (dark on top, yellow below), and lack of crest

Great Blue Heron in flight, Bodega Bay, June 20, 2011

Herons fly with their long necks tucked

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 7, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Great Blue Heron

Ardea herodias