Are Great Blue Herons Breeding at Higher Elevations Due to Climate Change?

/, Great Blue Herons, Little Emigration Canyon, Summit County, Utah/Are Great Blue Herons Breeding at Higher Elevations Due to Climate Change?

Update on the Short-eared Owl fledgling I rescued two days ago: The fledgling had extensive tissue damage and a severe compound fracture of its left wing, it was humanely euthanized the day I rescued it. I’m glad it did not starve to death in the field. I want to thank WRCNU for their help with the owl. 

Great Blue Heron on a spruce tree, Little Emigration Canyon, Summit County, UtahGreat Blue Heron on a spruce tree – Nikon D500, f8, 1/1000, ISO 500, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

I went up into a Wasatch Mountain Canyon yesterday morning because I felt like I needed some peace and solitude and I knew that the cooler air would revitalize me too. I also needed to distract myself from thinking about the fate of the Short-eared Owl I had rescued the day before.

There wasn’t a whole lot of bird activity or birds close enough for me to photograph but for me I am not in the field just for the photos I take, sometimes it is about moving slowly through nature and taking it all in. The scenery, the sounds, the smells and the disconnection from the news of the day and all the trappings of human life, I shut it out. Besides, for me bird photography isn’t a race, it is an immersion into the world of birds and nature and I like to savor it.

I’ve been missing my Mom and her company since she left and because we made several trips into this canyon while she was in Utah I was thinking about her as I drove through the canyon. I stopped at a view of the creek that runs through the canyon and on the spur of the moment decided to take a video of the creek with my D810 with my 18-200mm lens attached. I very rarely do videos because I don’t want to bother with a tripod to steady the video but I placed the lens on my photo pool noodle and used it to steady the camera. I was creating the video just for my mom and not for publication or anything.

I was keeping an eye on the LCD screen and looking above the camera at the same time when I saw a Great Blue Heron fly in from the north and land on a conifer tree on the hill across the creek then I stopped the video and started taking photos of the heron on top of the spruce. You can view the video here, it isn’t great but at about the 30 second mark you can see the heron fly in from the right side of the frame.

High elevation Great Blue Heron, Little Emigration Canyon, Summit County, UtahHigh elevation Great Blue Heron – Nikon D500, f8, 1/1600, ISO 500, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

I’ve seen Great Blue Herons in this canyon since I started photographing up there several years ago, it is not just one Great Blue that makes this canyon their home during the breeding season, while my mom and I were up there one day we saw three individual Great Blues as we traveled up the road. I’ve often wondered if the herons were nesting in the canyon and yesterday after I came home I did a little research into how high up Great Blue Herons nest.

On BNA (Bird of North American Online) and BioKids the highest elevation they both mention is 1500 meters in Panama which is a much different and warmer climate than here in the Wasatch Mountains and BNA mentions these herons nesting in British Columbia at just 1100 meters.

I didn’t do an extensive on line search to find the highest elevation that Great Blue Herons have been found breeding and nesting but I may do that later today. These Great Blue Herons at high elevations in Summit County have my curiosity piqued.

Great Blue Heron at more than 6129 feet elevation, Little Emigration Canyon, Summit County, UtahGreat Blue Heron at more than 6129 feet elevation – Nikon D500, f8, 1/1600, ISO 500, -1.0 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

I checked several TOPO maps to find the elevation I was at where I photographed this Great Blue Heron and it is approximately 1868 meters (6129 feet) in elevation which is 368 meters (1207 feet) higher than mentioned by BNA and BioKids for nesting Great Blue Herons.

These are all adult Great Blue Herons I see up in the canyon during the spring and early summer and I’ve seen them roosting in some cottonwoods near a hollow nest to the creek. The herons could be nesting in those trees, I can’t see the backside of those cottonwoods to check for nests. I’ll have to scope them very carefully to see if I can find any nests in them for my own knowledge.

Great Blue Heron perched in top of a spruce tree, Little Emigration Canyon, Summit County, UtahGreat Blue Heron perched in top of a spruce tree – Nikon D500, f7.1, 1/2000, ISO 500, -0.7 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light

I’m wondering now if Great Blue Herons here in Utah might already be adapting to climate change by moving higher up into the mountain valleys and canyons that have suitable food and water supplies to breed and nest.  I’m guessing it is entirely possible that they are.

So the video I took for my Mom led me down this path, thanks Mom!

Life is good.



  1. Pepe Forte July 9, 2018 at 11:20 am

    What a magnificent bird! As always…great pics enhanced by your informative and highly compelling commentary. Thanks Mia.

  2. Marty K June 28, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    GBHs are among my favorite birds. I’m so used to seeing them on the ground at our regional park, that those long legs perched in a tree seem comically out of place to me. I’m glad that they’ve found a way to accommodate to the changing environmental conditions. Thank you for sharing these shots and the video.

  3. Elephants Child June 28, 2018 at 2:17 pm

    It could well be an adaptation to climate change. That thing which sadly too many of our politicians say isn’t happening (and hence needs no action from them).
    I too use nature as heart balm and respite.

  4. Laura June 28, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Very interesting about the possibility of climate change impacting the herons breeding area. Sounds likely. Beautiful photos.
    i am sorry the owl fledgling did not make it.
    I am fortunate to get to spend time with my daughter paddleboarding on a nearby lake and we get to see herons and other birds. I cherish the time i get to spend with her too.

  5. Jorge H. Oliveira June 28, 2018 at 12:48 pm

    Yes I know exactly how you felt. Sometimes the best way to relieve our sorrows is to go into the woods or to a beach and watch the ocean.

    I am very sorry he didn’t make it.

    Thank you for the video.That place looks very peaceful with the sound of water flowing and the birds singing.

  6. Utahbooklover June 28, 2018 at 11:21 am

    I enjoyed this post, the images of the GBH and the soothing video too. Thanks!

    • Utahbooklover June 28, 2018 at 11:41 am

      Went back to see the tragic image of the SEO fledging trapped in the evil barbed wire. Thanks to all for the efforts to save it. 🙁

      • Mia McPherson June 28, 2018 at 11:52 am

        Utahbooklover, the link you followed was to a post in 2016, that Short-eared Owl fledgling survived and is now an education bird at HawkWatch International. The update snippet at the top of this post is from a rescue I did two days ago, that owl did not survive.

        Here is a link to that post:

        • Utahbooklover June 28, 2018 at 9:37 pm

          Thanks for correcting my mix up; good to know it survived the barbed-wire torture. At least one good outcome for your efforts. 🙂

  7. Shirley June 28, 2018 at 9:34 am

    I am not sure how old GBH are when they actually start mating but by the look of the dark upper mandible I would say this one still has not reached maturity. From what I understand the upper mandible turns yellow in mature the GBH.

  8. Ken Schneider June 28, 2018 at 7:53 am

    Yes, this well could be another instance of adaptation to climate change. It will be very interesting to see whether breeding can be confirmed rather than an expansion of the herons’ foraging territory as prey species themselves may be retreating to cooler and more favorable waters.

  9. Bob mcpherson June 28, 2018 at 7:17 am

    Love the blue heron pics.

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