In Audubon’s era the bird he portrayed in this magnificent watercolor model of the species was thought to constitute a separate species from its white morph (1863.17.281), the Ardea occidentalis. The Great Blue Heron has suffered less from plume hunters and pesticides than other herons, so that its numbers have remained strong. The largest and most widespread heron in North America, the Great Blue thrives along the ocean shore and around small inland ponds. Like all herons, it is protected under federal law. Nevertheless, if its habitat is not secured the tide could turn. The bird’s characteristic sound is a deep, hoarse croak.
In this watercolor Audubon portrayed the white morph, which at that time was considered a separate species, the Great White Heron (Ardea occidentalis). After seeing this pale morph of the Great Blue Heron for the first time and capturing several alive, Audubon painted this watercolor in the Florida Keys in 1832. He took a few of the birds, which thrive in captivity, to Charleston for his friend the Reverend John Bachman. They proved to be hungry and aggressive, not only ingesting buckets of mullets but also attacking chickens, ducks, cats, and even young children. JJA set his scene where the species likes to feed, on the beach, the air pregnant with tropical humidity. In the background are the waterfront buildings of Key West, for which George Lehman painted a finished watercolor for engraving in the Havell plate. With this amazingly innovative depiction Audubon has captured the awkward movement when the bird has just seized a fish with its broad bill and begins to straighten up from fishing posture in order to swallow it. Occasionally these birds die attempting to gulp down a fish that is too large.