Savouring the great blue heron’s majesty

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

Childhood memory. Three Mile Lake, Muskoka. Early morning mist. Lake a sheet of glass. Heron skims the surface and lands in the reeds. Stands erect. “Squawk!”
Algonquin Park. Summer 2007. Pioneer Logging Exhibit trail. Heron at water’s edge. Lightning strike of daggerlike bill. Scores a catch. Moments later a telltale Pisces bulge halfway down his gullet.
Ailsa Craig. Back yard on Queen St. North. Happily hunting heron reducing goldfish population of water garden. Need for more lily pads.
The great blue heron, Ardea herodias, ranges throughout much of North America, including southern Florida. It is often mistakenly called a crane. If you see a giant blue-gray bird with a six-foot wingspan, its neck drawn back and long legs straight out behind, it is most likely the great blue heron. It is a wader, not a swimmer, and does not have webbed feet.
The heron is monogamous and lays two to seven pale blue eggs that are 6.4 cm long. Incubation is 25-30 days. Both parents participate in feeding the young. In the month of March the birds return to the heronry (a rookery for herons). A typical nesting site in southwestern Ontario is a swampy deciduous forest clump in the midst of a farmer’s field. The nests are at least 10 metres up and consist of a network of sticks. Access to these nesting sites is very difficult for humans.
In past years there was a heronry on Hyde Park Road, south of Ilderton. For some unknown reason the herons moved north and now can be seen between Fifteen and Sixteen Mile Roads on the east side of Hyde Park Road. In early spring during nesting season, with a decent set of binoculars, one can observe the young, their necks craned like misplaced nesting sticks. The adults, circling and hovering over the nests look somewhat prehistoric, reminiscent of some feathered dinosaur.
One morning last summer I was afforded a fleeting glimpse of a smaller relative of the great blue, the green heron, which is about half the size of its blue cousin. As I opened the back door, the spooked bird lifted off from the water garden with a sharp ‘squawk’, its distinctive yellow legs dangling out behind. I think he departed without breakfast.
Fergus the Labrador and I often take our evening walk down to the iron bridge on West Corner Drive. Last week we were treated to a rare sight, compared to the usual red-winged blackbirds, beavers, and snapping turtles. As we stood at the bridge’s railing, a pair of great blue herons sailed over its framework on silent wings, just twenty feet above our heads. Like great pterodactyls, they continued their glide over the river, and then circled back to land gracefully in the top of the tallest of the deciduous trees on the riverbank. Their plumage appeared blue-gold in the setting sun and an occasional ‘squawk’ came from each bird. Shortly thereafter, a third heron descended onto a nearby tree. The giant birds sat with their long necks tucked back and appeared that they would settle there for the night. Fergus and I quietly went on our way, leaving the majestic creatures in peace.