I live in a river town. As in...a river runs through it. The town(s) (there are three, really) dot the river, which wends its way beneath the peaks. Communities follow and are named for the creeks that feed the river. It is our water source and, in many ways, it is the life force of this region.
All the time my father lived here before us, I never really appreciated the river. I thought it was an ugly river, with no poetry or wildness to it, rising and falling at the will of the Power company that has dammed it. But I was wrong. Just as the coyotes that range through cities, nature adapts and adjusts to our ways, and wildness touches us in unexpected ways.
I never pass this river that I don't see fishermen wading in its waters. [Usually they are geared head-to-toe in the latest finery offered by outdoor provision companies. In this way, too, the river has lost its wildness: it is stocked and the population of fishermen rises and falls according to the Fish and Game Commission schedule. But I digress.]
Sometimes, however, I am afforded a glimpse of a different kind of fisherman. One that reminds me of what is beautiful about this river. Several mornings a week and some evenings, I will see this lone fisherman wading among the rocks: a Great Blue Heron.
Ardea herodias. Family: Ardiedae. Order: Coconiiformes.
Great Blue Herons are the largest herons in North America. Lean, tall (42"-52") birds, they have long, rounded wings, pointed bills that appear to taper at the end (dagger-like), short tails, long legs and necks. Their upper bodies (back and wings) are blue-gray, and their necks are streaked with white, rust-brown, and black. Gray feathers ring the backs of their necks and chestnut-colored feathers adorn their thighs. Males boast plume of feathers behind their heads.
These gentle birds breed from March to May, nesting in colonies. They build their nests in trees or bushes near sources of water: marshes, swamps, lake edges, and rivers. Most of my life, I have thought that the Herons we see in Western North Carolina were either passing through or were blown off-course and out of their home coastal regions. However, I found that Great Blue Herons tend to avoid marine habits along the east coast, instead living inland and are found year-round as high as 4900 feet in elevation.
Colony size can range from a few pairs to hundreds of pairs. Females will lay between 2 and 7 pale blue eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, taking turns sitting on the clutch to keep them warm until they hatch 26-30 days later. The chicks fledge after 2 months. The colonies stay together only during mating season, however, as Herons are solitary predators, preferring to hunt alone. They are territorial and will establish feeding ranges. So the birds that I see regularly along our community creek and further along the river are neighbors, each with his own "trout ranch."
Great Blue Herons are active mostly in the mornings and at dusk, when fishing is best, and this is when you can see them more easily, although they will fish night and day. They use their long legs to wade in shallow water and their sharp bills to spear and catch their food. They eat mostly fish, but will also prey on frogs, salamanders, lizards, snakes, small birds, shrimp, crabs, crayfish, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and other aquatic insects. They locate their food by sight and usually swallow it whole. They have been known to stand still for long periods of time, watching and waiting for a meal, striking swiftly before returning to a stoic pose.
They are quiet birds compared to their relatives. When disturbed in flight, they may emit a soft "kraak". When disturbed near their nests, the call is more of a "fraunk", and they greet each other ( and others of their species) with an "ar". In total, these herons are known to have up to seven different calls. I do not recall having ever heard one, myself.
Once, as I was standing in our yard, I saw the profile of a heron overhead, gliding across the farm field and down the valley. Herons have a seven foot wingspan and can fly 20-30 miles per hour. When they fly, their necks curve into an elegant "S". They day I saw this one, a long gray shape against a white gray sky, its great wings spread, its legs in a line behind, I was struck by a particular peace. I gave thanks for this fisherman bird. This gentle creature. This touch of wildness. This grace.
I have always admired the Great Blue Heron.
Information and photos this post were taken from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web site.