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Fearless Great Blue Heron

“Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.”

Thich Nhat Hanh,
FEAR: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm 

What an insouciant look this great blue heron had as it sauntered, and preened, and fished inches away from an owl decoy on the dock one Sunday morning, utterly without fear. 

Great blue heron and owl decoy. No fear here.

Great blue heron and owl decoy. No fear here.

Wherein he Gets the Girl

Saturday at the lake with herons.

I barely could keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded, and then wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at them all, but one thing jumped out right from the start. The male. The male was missing the finger end of his wing…

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

The first outing of the year each May is mostly about getting back into the elements, feeling the water flow beneath the kayak, tuning muscles that had been idled winter-long, and exploring the lake to inventory the changes over the winter months. Any expectations for great blue heron sightings are low; if lucky, I get to see a solitary heron foraging along the shoreline, but at this time of year, half the population is generally sitting on eggs wherever they nest, which isn’t very near this lake (or at least isn’t visible from navigable waters).

This year, true to form, I was the first to put in at the boathouse, and had a leisurely solo paddle along the north shore, then delving into a tranquil remote cove, and back up again to the farthest reaches north. Lovely. No herons in sight, not even a high-altitude flyover, but such a sweet paddle. Winter was mild here that winter, there had been no big snows, so not much had changed along any parts of the shoreline, and there were no new recumbent pine trees that had crashed down since the previous autumn. It was so very good to be back on the lake, even if there were no herons about.

After finishing that circuit, I turned south, venturing deeper to pass under the tunnels and beyond into the only part of the lake where water skiing and fast powerboating are permitted. It’s a dangerous place for kayaks and other people-powered things, but the high season wouldn’t start til the following weekend and the lake was very quiet just then. It was worth taking the chance of the kayak getting swamped.

Not far beyond the last of the tunnels is a very small island with very tall trees. Cormorants roost there in numbers, and a mute swan pair nest beneath the pines. Great blue herons had a large nest there that had been used for generations. Four years ago, though, they abandoned the nest mid-summer due to human encroachment. It was a very sad sight, the abandoned nest. Then, three years ago, a fierce storm took down the top of the nesting tree. It didn’t look promising on the island for the herons for a few years. Two years ago, though, just before the high season started, I paddled down to the island area and was excited to see a young heron on a branch of what remained of the still-tall roosting tree. He was snug against the trunk, preening. Had he been born on that island? Was he waiting to attract a mate? Would they start a brood there? I wondered.

So, that Saturday, I went back there to see if he was again in that roosting tree. Binocs up. Focus. Focus again. Wait for the powerboat wake to subside and then focus yet once more. Several cormorant nests with birds in them, nests that weren’t there last year. Focus higher in the tree. A heron, ten feet above the cormorant nest. No, wait – two herons, very close together.

I watched transfixed as they preened, and then one peeled off, soared over my head, and landed in the pines across the channel from the island. A few minutes later, he reappeared – carrying a stick in his beak – and soared back up to his mate.

I have often said that I would never photograph nesting herons up close because I wouldn’t want to interfere with their breeding by getting too close, and a suitable telephoto lens would be too expensive and too heavy for use in a kayak. Plus, it wouldn’t be the same traveling to one of the rookeries that get overrun by photographers. So, I was content knowing I’d never photograph them, myself.

But here they were on my lake that Saturday, nesting – no travel involved, no expensive telephoto needed, no interfering with their mating attempts, no crowded rookery.

Goosebumps erupted at the realization that these weren’t just any herons, they were birds that I’d been watching for seven summers. Each year, if lucky, I’ve been able to see fledglings from that year’s crop, but have never seen the actual nesting. Until that Saturday.

I watched from a safe distance for about an hour as the male flew off and returned, back and forth, with sticks for the nest, and then as the female wove them into the nest. It was a very new nest, probably not more than a couple days worth of building so far. Mostly the female did the weaving, and sometimes the male helped before flying off to gather sticks and boughs.

What a thrilling scene, to watch these herons nesting on my lake. Curiosity was intense as I wondered exactly which two of the birds I know so well were they. I could guess through the binocs, but wouldn’t be be able to tell for certain until I downloaded the photos afterwards.

I was exhausted when I returned home after kayaking for more than four hours and could barely keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded. By then, I wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at all the shots, but one thing jumped out at me right from the start: the male.

The male was missing the finger end of his wing – it was the same two-year-old male who had suffered traumatic wing-end damage the previous summer, and who had tried valiantly that autumn to seduce the older female heron. I had been apprehensive about his odds for survival with that injury, and was elated that my fears had been unfounded. He had survived migration and the winter with his damaged wing, and he had found a mate and was building his first-ever nest.

Gorgeous in his now-adult plumage, he got the girl.

(This took place May 19, 2012.)

And in the end, then, I was mistaken about never photographing nesting herons, wasn’t I? Thanks for the nudge, WordPress.

© 2013 Babsje. (

The Lesser of Evils

Drifting slowly towards the mouth of the creek, I saw a heron feather, a grey-blue blur bobbing against the green waters along the north shore.

Wedging the nose of the kayak into the mud under the old oaks, I scooped up the feather with my paddle blade. I had just bent forward to secure it under the deck bungee when a large shadow passed overhead.

A burst of feathers exploded onto the shore a couple of yards to my east. A great blue heron, so close. He obviously hadn’t seen the kayak under the tree canopy on his landing approach.

As I fumbled to get the camera out of the dry sack, another larger shadow cruised over my head, and a second heron swooped in about eight feet from the first.

Two herons, so close. So close!

The larger, alpha heron immediately puffed himself up to full size, feathers fiercely framing his neck and head. He bolted up the shoreline, running aggressively after the first, while I watched, momentarily unseen.

And then they both saw me.  When they skidded to a stop, the smaller heron was a mere three feet away from me, the alpha heron about six feet farther beyond.

The smaller heron looked to his left at the alpha, then swivelled that graceful neck back towards me, glancing about furtively. His cap feathers were erect, extending straight up – a blue and white shock of feathers pointing skyward.

He clambered down from the fallen birch and eased closer to me.

The alpha glared at us both, and lept up on the fallen birch trunk, fast on the heels of the small heron.

The small heron glanced again at the alpha, then eyed me, cautiously, apprehensively. 

Great blue heron weighing avenues of escape from alpha heron.

Great blue heron weighing avenues of escape from alpha heron.

The alpha glared at us from his perch on the fallen birch.

The small heron turned back and forth, from alpha heron to human, weighing, weighing the greater of the dangers, the lesser of the evils: alpha heron vs woman.

And then he made his move.

With one last glance over his shoulder at the alpha, and one last look straight into my eyes, imploring me to be the safe choice, the small heron made his move. He lowered his head, fully parallel to the ground and slowly eased to the front of my kayak, mere inches from my bow.

Slowly, slowly forward, inch by inch.

And then in a sudden blur, he bolted across the shoreline in front of me to safety.

Once two yards beyond the kayak, the small heron stopped and looked back at me. Safe.

The alpha heron glowered on from his perch on the fallen birch.

And me? That day, I was the lesser of evils.


September 2, 2007

© 2013 Babsje. (

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