Speaking of Nature: Green Herons
The phone call came on the afternoon of July 3. It was not at all unusual for the phone to ring because of the long list of telemarketers that somehow seem to get my number. No, what made this phone call unusual was the person on the other end of the line. It was Merry. I think I can count the number of times that Merry has placed a phone call to me on one hand, so this was indeed something out of the ordinary.
She had news of a wonderful birding opportunity for me and since she knew I would be visiting Amherst for the July Fourth weekend, she just wanted to make sure that I brought my camera with me. I have learned, through painful personal experience, that one should never travel without a camera so again the idea was not out of the ordinary. What made it interesting was the fact that Merry brought it up.
July Fourth was on a Friday this year, which made a long weekend particularly easy to plan out. The weather had also been someone atrocious, which took the actual afternoon of the Fourth right out of contention for anything other than sitting with the folks and catching up on things. Saturday, on the other hand, was something altogether different. The sky was blue, the air was crisp and cold, the humidity had disappeared and the sun was bright an warm; easily the nicest day of the summer so far.
So, after a leisurely breakfast, I finally placed a call to Merry’s house. Long and painful personal experience had managed to dampen my hopes just a bit. On more than one occasion I have received phone calls about eagles, foxes and all manner of creatures that had been seen by someone. The message had always been “come quick,” and 99 percent of the time the result had been failure. It seems that the longer the drive, the less likely you are to succeed.
When I finally heard Merry’s voice on the other end of the line —we played phone tag for awhile — we had a quick discussion about implementing this journey. It was decided that I would drive down to her house and pick her up. I pulled into her driveway and she got into the car without any binoculars (which is always a good sign). The birds would be close.
While we drove we talked about what people in the area had been seeing. It was a group of juvenile green herons and they had been walking, flying and even just standing around a particular neighborhood for many days now. The herons were large enough to fly with great skill, but still young enough to lack any particular sense of purpose; the equivalent, perhaps, of a 10-year-old child.
The concern was that these fledglings would — of course — have finally found that sense of purpose on the very day that I showed up to see them and when we finally arrived at our destination, it seemed like that may have been the case. We were at the quiet end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a quiet neighborhood and the birds, which had learned that it was safe to live out in the open, were nowhere to be seen.
Merry and I checked the spots that had been fruitful in the past without any luck. My mother had mentioned seeing them walking in someone’s lawn along the side of the road and Merry described seeing them in a thick stand of blue spruce that had been planted by the roadside. The birds, however, were nowhere to be found.
A neighbor came out and talked with us for a little while. He said that the previous day, during a long bout of rain, the manhole cover in the middle of the street had become filled with rainwater. He then went on to describe the sight of a young green heron standing in the water as if it were hunting for food. Again, the instincts seemed to be working properly, but these birds were so young that they had no experience to help guide them.
And then, the birds arrived. Just slightly smaller than crows, but much quicker in flight, four green herons came flying in from the north. These birds were further along in their development than I had suspected and in flight, I actually mistook them for adult birds. Their wings and backs were darker than what I was looking for and their aerial skills caused me to miss what I was actually seeing.
Four birds flew into a tree and simply disappeared. They were so well hidden for so long that we actually began to wonder if we had somehow missed their departure, but eventually they emerged again and assuaged our fears. Their ability to disappear was the result of an odd phenomenon that seems to cloak “large” birds in mystery. Large birds look large until they settle down. Once this happens, they look much smaller and if you can actually get one of these birds in your hands the illusion is completely shattered. Even large birds aren’t that large.
It took some time, but eventually the young herons finally settled down and went about the business of being restless and bored without any trace of fear. What I needed from them was that magical combination of random luck and lack of concern that makes young birds so “friendly” for photographers and, about 30 minutes into our visit, I got just what I was hoping for.
One of the four siblings landed in a gray birch that had a serendipitous branch with a gap in its leaves and branches. Experience suggested that these birds would not flinch if I approached and experience proved a good teacher. I was able to get within 30 feet of them without much more than a speculative, “who are you” sort of look.
The question went unanswered and the attention span of a young heron is not much more than that of a small child. A lack of any interesting or threatening movement on my part allowed the bird’s mind to wander and I soon started to blend into the background. This allowed me to observe some interesting behavior.
These birds had probably been hatched and brooded in a nest in a stand of white pines that was in sight, but well off the road. They had probably been extending the radius of their practice flights for days and were clearly ready to start feeding themselves. At one point, I saw the youngster in the birch tree freeze, lock its gaze on a twig and strike at it when the time seemed right. Instinct said “strike,” but the twig was deemed inedible. Good to remember that for later.
There was a large marsh just a short distance from the young herons’ little bubble of the world and it would be simplicity in itself for them to fly in a straight line and be there in seconds. The marsh was not visible from their location, however, so it would require a little more exploration for them to find it. Once found, however, it would clearly become their favorite place on Earth. Lots of edibles mixed in with all of the sticks in a marsh, so I was very fortunate to see them.
Thank you, Merry, for bringing me to see the herons that grew up in the suburbs.
Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com