Spring 2001 Edition
On strong gusts, two large birds appear overhead in grey, pre-dusk skies. The dark, long-necked bodies, with enormous, wide wings, follow currents in a tight loop. Then they soar off, so close that one bird rides the wind only inches above the others back.
It is brutally cold this late afternoon at Februarys end. But the pair of great blue herons seems to sense something about the imminence of spring which my shivering body declines to recognize. March marks the beginning of the breeding cycle of these majestic birds.
The great blue, Ardea herodias, often winters in the coastline area. For most of the year, it is known as an immensely solitary bird. We spot them, as they stand in shallow waters, silent sentinels of sea shore, brackish marsh lowlands, or freshwater creeks, lakes, and ponds.
Waiting patiently, the birds, standing up to 54 inches tall, peer down past long, spindly legs. They may wait for hours for the right moment to spear with their long, sharp bill, a by-passing fish or frog.
Great blues, claims Tom Horton (Smithsonian, Ap 99), were "stalking prehistoric swamps 1.8 million years ago." He cites the presence of the genus Ardea for at least 14 million years. For much of their existence, they are, indeed, solitary. According to Hope Douglas, Executive Director of Wind Over Wings, when these heron need medical assistance, the birds require solitary confinement, to survive, yet they can be immensely social, particularly during breeding season, when the birds often colonize in rookeries. Such gatherings may boast hundreds of heron, egrets, and ibis. The great blues often prefer the tallest sites to nest, in trees up to 100 feet in height.
Once young are hatched, the honking, squawking, hissing, constant cacaphony of the colony may attest to the sociability of these amazing creatures. In this part of the state, great blue herons nest in such habitat as along the Branford River and on Barn Island, which is off limits to humans during breeding season.
Their presence in Connecticut, and in North America, even parts of Mexico, is ubiquitous. The birds are totally "Americana." But longtime residents of this area remind us that this was not so two decades ago, when heron, as fish eaters, were rare. They suffered the effects of DDT.
Studies show that even today, their egg shells are not quite back to pre-DDT thickness. In earlier years, the eggs failed, because shells laid were so thin that developing chicks broke through from their own weight, before they were fully formed, and died.
These days, there is much to celebrate, with over 100,000 breeding pairs in North America. And celebrate, they do. Their mating rituals are exquisite dances, flounces of great, grey-blue shawls. Extraordinary filmy breeding plumes are fluffed and flashed from neck, chest, and back in hues of violet, black, chestnut, cream, and white.
They stretch and bow. They touch sinuously, body to body, and the tips of their bills, making of their bodies a heart. The male breaks off a supple branch, sometimes with new leaves, which he presents dashingly to the prospective mate.
Ah, but do you think they are playful only because it is springtime, and each year, they must find a new mate? Not so. I happened upon a trio of great blue heron dancing one grey day in December.
They stood above the marsh in Stony Creek, CT. Three birds, in a circle, were bowing to one another. Whether it was play or a ritual of sacred proportions, the birds beautifully choreographed social gathering informed me that we know little about the depth stories of their lives.
Kathryn Burton, of East Lyme, CT, once described a great blue heron dancing before her lamp post at Lake Pattagansett. Each sighting of these perhaps-rare moments is a glimpse into the mysteries of non-human existence.
Sometimes, the practical aspects of their lives also may seem miraculous. Former Stony Creek residents Annie and David Pugsley reported watching breathlessly as a great blue heron endeavored to swallow an enormous blue crab on a beach near their British Virgin Island home.
The heron are known to swallow large fish whole, although this is also risky business and can choke a heron. Not to mention the painful death if a fish is swallowed the wrong way, so that the scales slice all the way down. Mice, rats, baby muskrats, snakes, ducklings, and sometimes rails may also serve as heron diet.
In flight, slowly flapping their huge wings, great blues fly low to the ground, neck scrunched to the shoulder, legs dangling. "Awwrrrk, awwwrrak," they cry in gutteral tones. Their deep squawks, as well as the flying form, seem reminiscent of ancient pterodactyls.
Tuned to a different, more ancient, less hurried world, these great plumed creatures may be found in their silent fishing activities late into the night hours, or in the wee hours of the morn. Especially, when they are feeding their growing young.
There may be many as four hatchlings, if none end up being chucked from the nest by larger siblings. Both parents forage for food, which they offer as regurgitated half-digested morsels.
Although it appears these immense, striking birds are doing well, only one in five juvenile birds survive to become a breeding adult in the third spring. They still suffer negative effects of organophosphate pesticides; and loss of habitat for solitary breeding areas.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is also a participant to their decline, granting depradation permits nearly fifteen thousand between 1987 and 1995 to aquaculturists, who kill off great blue heron feeding on fisheries. The greatest enemy, aside from humans, is ironically the bald eagle, who often chooses to breed in similar habitat.
Note: This is a slight modification of an article printed March 8, 2001, in The Source, The Sound, The Harbor News, and The Guilford Courier, Connecticut shoreline newspapers. Reprinted by permission of Shorepublishing, Inc., Madison, CT
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