Sherry Stratton

Heron Watch

Heron Watch

September 9
Once again a great blue heron is stalking Meadowbrook, the huge, oddly delicate creature an incongruous presence at the edge of our small pond. I shoo it away, and when Dick comes home he lays planks and spare tomato stakes over the water, as he’s done in previous heron episodes. Then we go for our usual forest preserve walk.

No heron in sight when we get home. As I’m heating soup for lunch, Dick calls out from the porch. Turning from stove to window, I see the bird is back, and worse, it’s swallowing. So we go out and pile on more boards, and the pond now looks impregnable. But the great blue shows up several more times during the day. Past experience says this may go on a while. In the meantime, we are turning Meadowbrook into an eyesore.

September 10
Looking from our bedroom window first thing this morning, Dick spots the heron pond-side. I’m half asleep as he reports this news, and I picture yesterday’s swallowing bird. “Honey, clap, knock—do something!” He claps hard and the heron flies. We find our second wake-up call downstairs on the answering machine. Dick’s mother has been taken to the hospital, so he soon departs for the day.

After lunch I do a heron check, and this time the bird is on the uphill side of the pond, where its chances of doing damage are slim. But still. I’m about to go off and leave the yard unguarded for the afternoon, so I look around for some obstruction to drag out there, something that can stand the rain that’s just started. Ah, the two metal end tables on the porch. Perfect. I position them strategically at water’s edge, turned on their sides for full effect. Taking a quick look from the kitchen before leaving, I don’t know how the pond could be any better fortified. Or any junkier looking.

September 11
Our first jolt from the wildlife world today has nothing to do with the great blue. We are awakened a little before six by the overpowering scent of skunk. (So much for letting in the fresh night air.) After Dick runs through the house slamming windows shut, he looks out from the bedroom. It’s barely light, but sure enough, there is our resident visitor. Dick raises a window and claps it away. So begins our day.

I leave for an early appointment, and Dick heads to the hardware store with a new idea involving chicken wire. Midmorning we meet in town for a haircut date, and when we return home, I assess the new heron barrier: rolls of wire placed end to end around the pond periphery. Well, it’s less obtrusive than the planks and odd items of furniture; we’ll see how effective. Feeding the fish late in the afternoon, I see a leopard frog hopping toward the pond. It pauses only briefly at the chicken wire, climbs in and then out through the roll, and splashes into the water.

Of our seven small koi, we have to assume that at least one has become a heron meal. But in recent days, we have only been able to count four of them. With lots of vegetation on the surface, though, it’s hard to see the fish all at once. And since the heron visits began, the koi have been especially skittish. I’m thinking our five big ones, each with a girth twice that of a heron’s neck, should be in no danger.

September 12
Dick is with his mom again most of today and I’m on heron duty. I decide to start a log, making a tick each time the bird appears. Often it is already near the pond when I happen to look out. Sometimes, the honey locust in the side yard is the staging area. (A giant wading bird landing high in a tree is a stunning vision, especially here in suburbia.) We have seen it drop from the eastern sky and march boldly across the grass, or sneak—so it seems—up the tree-shaded path from the west. This evening as we sit on the porch, a sudden shadow appears over the lawn, and the heron alights out of nowhere. A helicopter could set down in our backyard and I would not be more startled.

By the end of the day, my tally stands at seven.

September 14
It’s time to do a bit of heron research. Here at Meadowbrook, it seems that September is the month for great blue visits. The first siege, lasting several days, was three years ago. The following year, my journal notes a single appearance, September 26. We wonder if these periodic September sojourners are migrants. I consult a field guide and learn that the year-round range of the great blue begins about 300 miles south of us. And, although some individuals winter far north into the breeding range, that is unusual. So, our migrant theory seems valid.

The great blue, Ardea heronidas, is the most common and largest heron, with a wingspan of six feet. They nest in colonies, called rookeries, but tend to be solitary hunters. With their long legs and necks and spear-like bills, great blues are well adapted for aquatic prey, but they are generalists and will also take birds and small mammals, sometimes choking to death on prey that is too large.

In a discussion of ardeid feeding habits, I come across this striking line: “Standing in wait is the most widespread and common foraging behavior.” The words spark a memory, and I look back through my journal for an entry made last year:

When I settled in for computer work about an hour ago, I glanced out the window and spotted a familiar shape across the river, which the binoculars confirmed to be a great blue. Since then, I have checked from time to time, and the heron has not moved from its spot. I watch my own restless impatience as I wade through old emails that I can’t decide how to deal with. All the while, the heron has not budged.

I find myself wishing the Meadowbrook heron would decamp for the river, where I would not begrudge the creature its fill. Our beloved koi, though, captive in their manmade pool, are a different matter.

September 16
On the advice of our hairdresser, a fellow pond-person, Dick has installed yet a different deterrent: a three-level string fence staked around the pond. It’s the least ugly, least conspicuous solution to date. We have observed the heron outside this fence, cocking its head from side to side, considering the options. Lately we’re seeing it only once or twice a day. Mostly, these sightings are at dawn, the bird materializing as though produced by the light itself.

September 18
Yesterday, for the first time since this saga began, we did not see the heron at all. Dick had tweaked the fence design, replacing the shiny metal rods with official green garden stakes and the white string with four tiers of brownish twine. But today at daybreak the heron was back. I watched through binoculars from upstairs while Dick watched from the kitchen before chasing it away.

September 19
It feels as though this first-thing-a.m. heron check has been our routine forever. Dick is usually up first and on the job, but I still like to check for myself. This morning, awaking alone at 6:30, I look out the bedroom window. Before I have a chance to scan for the great blue, my attention is waylaid by a different great on the roof of the birdfeeder. I start to call downstairs, and Dick replies before I finish, “I’m watching it.” I doubt that we’re watching the same thing, and I hustle down the stairs telling him to look at the birdfeeder. We stand transfixed at the kitchen window as a great-horned owl surveys the yard from atop the feeder. A few feet away, the heron advances on the pond in stealth mode. The two birds are keeping an eye on each other, but neither drops a beat in its hunter focus. Eventually, the owl flies, and when the heron gets too close for our comfort, we send it off.

September 20
The usual this morning—Dick saw the great blue and scared it off when he got tired of watching. Didn’t see it again till dinnertime. The heron’s approach to the higher string fence told Dick where his latest arrangement needed adjusting. I’m grateful that this bird doesn’t seem to hunt at night.

October 23
I wish I had recorded our final sighting of the great blue. (But then, how could I have known it was the last?) What we know for sure is that we still have five big koi and two small ones, and it’s been several weeks since we’ve seen our big bird. I got up from my desk a few minutes ago to look out at the pond. Dick was pulling up the green stakes and winding the twine around them—saving for a future use. So it’s decided; we’re officially done with the great blue for this go-round.

Our little-guy koi, all hatched at Meadowbrook last season, had not yet been named. I’d mused about that regretfully as they started to disappear. Now I resolve to name the two survivors before winter sets in. Meanwhile, the koi and the heron continue in nature’s way: the fish moving toward dormancy, the great blue heading south. Heron or no, we continue our watch.


 

After a career in technical writing, Sherry Stratton has focused on the subjects closest to her heart. Her work has been published in Snowy Egret, A Prairie Journal, and Seeding the Snow, and is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb in summer 2015. Sherry is copy editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. She lives at the edge of a forest preserve in northeastern Illinois.

6 comments

  1. I love this, Sherry! It’s new to me, and I can so relate to your experience of watching and being so engaged. Wonderful storytelling!

  2. This is indeed a lovely piece of writing. If we did not know anyting about great blue heron behavior, especially persistence, we certainly are familiar with it after Sherry’s wonderful descriptions of the challenges the bird presented and the strategies she and Dick invented to
    out maneuver their adversary.
    Great stuff, Sherry.

    Vern Miller

  3. Very lovely, funny and captivating. I love the imagery of a heron appearing from the light itself, slow and stalking. How mysterious, frustrating and yet beautiful it is. I also love how you weave this tale with the heron being very much a part of the environment you are trying to protect. I can well relate to the diligence, innovation and, if successful relief that comes from such a battle.

  4. As a sometime witness to the unfolding of this tale, I can appreciate the delicacy with which Sherry balances her observations with the heron’s needs. It’s a lovely piece of writing, reflecting aspects of several lives, human and otherwise, of great importance to the writer.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. I wasn’t sure why they didn’t want the heron around until I read about the koi Sherry and Dick wanted to protect! I see a great blue almost daily on my walks in the forest in northern Wisconsin, and have even been to a rookery. They are quite interesting. It was a good read! Thank you, Sherry

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