June 2018

The Great Blue Heron Exchange

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Photo by Joan Heffernan

A great blue heron couple discuss the nest they are carefully building high above the swamp.

The way I see it, there were many advantages to growing up with a whole slew of brothers. We spent most of our days crawling around in the dirt or rerouting streams using mud and sticks. And when we were cooped up inside, we had a book entitled The World We Live In. We pored over its oversized illustrations, including those of dinosaurs. It fired our imaginations, and I still get the chills when I leaf through it. At any rate, whenever we hit the road, our parents were willing participants in our quest for all things living including dinosaurs. They would pull over the car anytime we glimpsed an expanse of sedimentary rock, preferably on some riverbed. We’d be madly hoping some carnivorous dinosaur, maybe a dilophosaurus, might have left some evidence of once having roamed these parts. The engine would still be ticking and off we’d go, convinced we were about to unearth our very own dinosaur track, just like the ones we’d admired at the library, back when that was housed on the Academy property. We spent a bit of time at the library during inclement weather, and my folks liked the idea that their kids could ride their bikes down and have an afternoon of immersion in literature. What may have escaped them is that most of our time was spent rubbing our grimy hands across the huge dinosaur tracks housed in the foyer of the library. If we had a few extra minutes we might cast our eyes on the elaborate dumbwaiter that was used to fetch books from the different levels of the library back when that’s what people did for entertainment. But pulleys only had so much appeal, just ask my physics teacher, and dinosaurs were never far from our brains.

These days when I need my dinosaur fix, I look to the heavens to catch a glimpse of our very own prehistoric-looking great blue herons. There has been talk about birds evolving from dinosaurs and, just maybe, that will give folks pause as the Great Blue Heron stands vigil by a pond. They are experts at being still, but in flight they look like pterodactyls reminding me of the days of the Mesozoic era when giant reptiles roamed the earth.

Not too long ago a few of my friends and I decided to spend the afternoon in the swamp as we like to do. Throwing caution to the wind in the world of leeches and ticks, off we went. We were headed for a heron rookery, and our time was spent clutching our binoculars, watching a male heron fetch the most lovely sticks for his bride as they began to build their nests. The picture of patience, these large birds know that Rome was not built in a day and took great care with each stick they located. The herons like to nest in colonies with multiple nest sites, usually in trees 100 feet or so above some wetland. The males locate the spot and lure the females which ultimately results in the most beautiful twig exchange. From these twigs the female adds pine needles and moss, and weaves the interior of the nest; so begins the life cycle. A female will lay 3-6 eggs and when she is not keeping them warm, she or her mate will be searching for fish, frogs and insects. Weeks pass, the eggs hatch, and the babies grow and are ready to take flight by the time the days start to get shorter. So, if they play their cards right, by next season they will be finding their own sticks to present to their mates and all will seem right in the world.

Thinking back to the pterodactyls, I can’t help but wonder about the sticks they may have chosen to seal the deal with their mates. And, really, what relationship can’t be improved by the exchange of a well- chosen stick. Think I’ll light out to find one now.

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