Harper the great blue heron was tagged with a GPS transmitter near Harpswell in 2019. The technology allows state biologists to track her every move. Credit: Courtesy of Danielle D'Auria

Ever since state biologists started tracking Maine great blue herons in 2016, they have collected a treasure trove of migratory bird data. It’s information that’s led to better understanding of bird behavior and will craft wildlife policy.

It’s also created some unlikely online celebrities in the three birds the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are currently tracking using the GPS technology. The movements of great blue herons Harper, Cornelia and Ragged Richard are regularly posted on the department’s Heron Observation Network of Maine’s Facebook page.

But Harper is the star attraction.

Harper has become a social media darling thanks to her epic flights from Maine to the Caribbean. Close to 11,000 people follow the activities of the herons, but Harper’s updates routinely rack up hundreds of likes and comments on social media and are shared thousands of times.

For three years, the migratory bird has logged thousands of nonstop flying miles over open water on her way south, at times reaching interstate-worthy speeds of nearly 70 mph.

Every inch of that journey is documented by state biologists who outfitted Harper with a global positioning system transmitter in 2019 as part of a study to better understand heron behavior and activity.

That’s how they know that Harper spent a week this month flying 2,100-miles from the Maine-Canadian border to Cuba. Harper divided her journey into three legs. First a 40-hour nonstop flight from Edmundston, New Brunswick, to Bermuda, where she took a three-day rest. From there she flew 30 straight hours to the Bahamas and took an eight-hour break before continuing on to Cuba.

As she travels, updates on her progress — and of Cornelia and Ragged Richard — are posted on the Facebook page.

“Everytime I post about Harper it blows up the Internet and my phone,” said Danielle D’Auria, a biologist with the wildlife department’s bird group. “I get notifications all night.”

Information from the GPS transmitter lets D’Auria know when Harper is flying, her speed, altitude, direction and where she is at any given time. On the ground, it provides data from her summer and winter colony nesting spot and feeding areas.

Over the years they have been tracking herons, D’Auria said her team has learned they return to the same winter nesting sites every year. Cornelia, for example, spends her summers in New Gloucester and winters in the Bahamas. At each location, her nest is within the same 2 square miles every year.

“For a long time we wondered how the birds got south,” D’Auria said. “Did they follow the coastline? Now we know they spend a lot of time over open ocean.”

This spring Ragged Richard — so named for Ragged Island where he was first tagged — nested near Harpswell but soon made a beeline west and north to Edmundston where he has been ever since.

Mapping technology allows biologists to take that information and combine it with known environmental, climate and human activities affecting the birds.

The GPS transmitters are also fitted with a sort of avian Fitbit that relays the birds’ activity levels. The data tell biologists when the herons are flapping their wings or gliding with air currents.

All of that information will help shape policy that helps protect heron habitat, nesting areas and food sources.

On this year’s flight south, Harper averaged around 34 mph and topped out at 67 mph. She flies around 750 feet above the ocean most of the time but occasionally gets up to more than 2,500 feet. D’Auria suspects those elevation fluctuations were to take advantage of favorable wind currents and were represented by her increased wind speeds.

It’s all good scientific information that is captivating to the people who follow Harper. And D’Auria has no clear explanation for why Harper has caught the attention of online birdwatchers.

“Visuals go a long way and people see a track of a map that goes over open ocean for so many miles and realize that the bird did not stop for all that time,” she said. “That is some big ‘wow’ factor that grabs people.”

She said the idea that a bird most people associate with the Maine coast or ponds is capable of such distances can capture the imagination.

As impressive as this year’s flight was, it fell short of her record-setting pace last year when Harper logged 2,030 miles flying 68-hours nonstop from Quebec to Georgia.

As much as they are learning from Harper, Cornelia and Ragged Richard, D’Auria said there is still so much more to learn.

“We don’t know why they go where they go every winter year after year,” she said. “Some go to Haiti, some to Florida and Harper is down in Cuba — did they learn that from their parents? Did their first year of migration determine where they end up? There are just so many questions.”

Unlike other migratory birds, herons don’t travel in large groups. They prefer to make their trips solo or in the company of a handful of other herons. They also don’t spend any extra time or effort fattening up before heading out.

“The thing is there is so much to learn about herons and all wildlife,” D’Auria said. “We have some preconceived notions and understanding but these [GPS] transmitters can really open our eyes.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.