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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2003

Hark, the Heron's Herald
by Damian Fagan

The fishermen were quietly standing knee-deep in the river. Their slow movements did little to betray their presence. Occasionally, one would look up, scan the river’s surface, check on the sky. Some type of midge formed a smoky mass, their tiny bodies swirling about in the light April breeze as the fishermen continued their glacial speed advance upriver.

One stopped mid-stride, tilted its head with sloth-like speed and stared down into the shallows of the river. A pause and a momentary calculation, then a lightning quick stab below the surface. The fishermen raised his long neck out of the water giving me a quick chance to identify its prey. Though difficult to tell at this distance, the fish looked to be a small catfish. My view was quickly interrupted as the fisherman readjusted its quarry and swallowed the fish bones and all.

Of course, this two-legged fishermen doesn’t carry a creel or a license or even ran a string for its catch. No, but what can you expect from a great blue heron?

The four-foot tall great blue heron goes by the nickname Big Cranky. The nickname is not just because of its height, but when one gets disturbed, the bird lifts off from its fishing spot with a loud, low-pitched croak. Displeasure through a monosyllable grunt.

But the great blue often just flies downstream on its long, broad wings and finds another fishing hole. In flight the great blue folds its long neck backwards onto its shoulder, giving the viewer the impression that the bird lacks a neck. Unlike cranes, which fly with their necks extended, herons retract those long necks.

Blue-gray in color, these long-legged creatures nest in colonies meaning they prefer to nest in close proximity to one another, often just a tree limb away from their closest neighbor. Herons may select a large cottonwood tree or even a dense stand of Gambel’s oak for their nesting neighborhood. In the crown of the tree the birds build large, relatively flat nests that may be used year after year.

Great blues are not the only herons to nest here along the Colorado River. A close relative, the black-crowned night heron may not be strictly nocturnal, but one often hears a deep QUOK! as the birds fly overhead at night. Also called the night raven, due to its raven-like call, this small heron hunts in the evening hours thus avoiding competition between itself and great blues. Like their taller cousins, black-crowned prey on small fish, aquatic insects, frogs, snakes and even young mice. These birds lack the long, sinuous neck of the great blue, but their fishing prowess is just as fine - they are just closer to the water due to their smaller stature.

Whereas great blue heron nests look flimsy, those of the black-crowned really are. A loose assemblage of sticks constitutes a home, with perhaps some finer materials woven into the lining. Several pale blue-green eggs are laid in the nest which the female constructed, but for which the male collected the building materials.

Named after their black crown feathers, night herons appear short and squat in flight. With a short thick neck and broad wings, the birds seem chunky versus the lanky look of the great blues. Though these birds frequent areas with extensive marshes like the Matheson Preserve, they may also be found in the stream side vegetation along the Colorado River. And like their stealth moving cousins the great blues, the night herons’ herald is often heard long before the birds are seen.

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