Clellie Lynch: Herons in the 'hood


EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> Milky white sunlight trickles through the now leafy woods lightening the grayish morning clouds overhead. At 6 a.m., it is breezy, almost cold and barely light as I start out on my morning walk.

Breeding birds now on territory greet this chilly dawn. Redstarts nest near the chestnut-sided warbler. Orioles are high-up in the cottonwood tree that's also home to rose-breasted grosbeaks. The bluebird competes with the tree swallow. Both ignore the noisy wren.

Today, the woods are alive with the sounds of flycatchers: pewees, leasts, phoebes, a willow and the great crested. Flies, though, must be at a premium, since they must be shivering under their leafy blankets this cold morning. A kingbird flutters over the newly-mown field (grrr good-bye, bobolinks!) by the pond, now a bit slurry near the edges with a new bloom of water chestnuts.

Avian stalker

I approach the smaller pond, now at a much lower level since the Columbia Land Conservancy opened the sluice. There, standing utterly motionless along the muddy shore is a beautiful great blue heron. Tall and stately, The bird ignores me as I follow the path up to the edge of the pond.

What a creature! Standing over 4 feet tall, he or she is intent on watching the water, waiting for an unwary fish or frog. Slowly it lifts one foot, spreads its toes as it steps down and forward; then, in slo-mo, it repeats with the other foot. An avian stalker on the move.

The great blue heron, Ardea herodias, is the largest of the North American herons and is found throughout the United States and Canada. They are equally at home near wooded lakes, rivers and streams as they are wading in coastal marshes.

Suddenly, this bird strikes. I can see the tiny fish wriggling in its sharp, yellow beak. Gulp! and it's gone! The bird opens his wings, flaps once, twice, and then is airborne. Up it flies and circles back. It's headed to the heronry at the far side of Hand Hollow.

In our area, you are quite likely to see a solitary bird near a lake or pond, yet these birds are social or colonial nesters preferring company when breeding. Great blues have been nesting at this heronry for a few years and now in ponds throughout the Berkshires with tall dead trees. Some years they are successful; some years they start to nest and then disappear, perhaps finding a better area nearby. Most tend to build their nests high up. Here, the two stick-and-twig nests are about three quarters of the way up skeletal dead pines at one end of a beaver pond.

Both nests are occupied today — could be males or females sitting on the eggs. Great blues share incubation and feeding of the young. A third bird slowly flies in, stretches out its long neck from the retracted flying position, curves his wings as if they were airplane flaps to slow himself down and reaches for the tiptop of a spiky tree with its long, long legs. The heron gracefully lands and looks about. A kingfisher is just below him on a branch chattering away.

Curiously, in the literature, this bird is invariably described as gray, very infrequently as bluish gray. All describe the head as white with a black stripe through the crown except for Ralph Hoffmann in "The Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York" who describes the crown as black with a white stripe through it. These early guide books were usually a compilation of the author's own observations, but also included descriptions from other respected amateur ornithologists. Maybe Hoffman never examined a specimen of a great blue.

Hoffmann also claims that this bird used to breed throughout this area, but by the time this book was published, 1904, there were no heronries left. He makes no mentions as to why. Maybe because the beavers who created these wonderful, drowned forests with the dead trees standing in fish-filled waters, were nearly extinct by this time.

Another oddity I came across that I have found nowhere else is that the great blue heron possessed a lantern on his chest for nocturnal hunting. J.P. Giraud, Jr. in "The Birds of Long Island" (1843) writes: "At night, after the last report of the murderous gun has died away and the gunner is resting in a glorious state of unconsciousness, then the Blue Heron, with other nocturnal waders, venture more fearlessly forth from their secluded residence, to satisfy demands of appetite. On wading to a certain depth, they stand motionless, and with poised bills, silently wait the expected prey. In this position the plumage is parted, exposing a portion of the breast which is furnished with a downy substance emitting a phosphorescence."

Now Giraud does admit he checked one heron specimen after another for this " light wood" or "fox fire," but he never found any such "bird's lantern" — he only reported what his gunner friends told him. Nor did Giraud find the meat of the heron particularly palatable, even though the self-same gunners claimed it was the best of the waders for good eatin'!

Old heron tales

The heron's reputation has varied through the centuries. The bird was cowardly, wise, prudent and a friend to sailors for if there were herons around, fish were too. Why, though, was a heron considered cowardly? Because, so the story goes, when chased by a hawk the heron does not fight back, he slowly and nonchalantly just flies higher and higher.

Now this flying higher and higher also gave the heron a reputation for being able to fly over a rain storms, hence if you see a heron flying away from you, a storm is on the way. Hmmm — invariably when you come across a heron and he notices you, the bird will fly away from you, not toward you.

Thank goodness science crept out from behind the tapestry of the time and auguries from the natural world and superstitions were left behind in dusty tomes. A great blue heron is just a heron, a wonderful creature to see lazily flying overhead.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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