Tuesday, March 2, 2010

PERCHING HERON


It is late, almost six o'clock on a cloudy winter's day. The light is noticeably fading, heading towards dusk which always comes early here in this hill-cupped valley, where the river cuts its slate-blue path and sycamores lean thoughtfully over restless water.

For the past half hour—long enough to eat a bowl of vegetable soup and drink most of a mug of coffee—I've been sitting in the main room, beside the cold hearth, watching the riffle and pool in front of the cottage and the woods on the island beyond. There are a dozen Canada geese cruising along the bank where the water is still. Big birds in formal-looking  black and white and gray attire. Every so often, amid much flapping of wings, they take to honking at one another, like disgruntled drivers caught in a traffic jam.

Just as I'm finishing my drink, a great blue heron comes sailing downstream, twenty feet above the river, and makes a hard right turn at the pool to sweep into island's thick timber. I see the big bird flap once, twice, then angle its glide-path up slightly to land atop a horizontal sycamore limb, exhibiting more lightness and grace than you'd think possible in such a gangly creature. 

Until I moved to this riverside cottage, I had no idea great blue herons spent so much time in trees. I'd visited heron rookeries during nesting time, and watched the great birds come winging into their high nests. Yet other than that, I'm not sure I'd ever noticed a heron in a tree as I wade-fished or float-tripped my way along countless streams. And believe me, I've spent far more time on the water than most folks—even serious angler-types. Now I've come to learn that herons sit in trees every day, sometimes for an hour or more at a stretch; they tree-perch throughout the year, through all seasons and weather; and they sit at all heights above the ground, not necessarily over the water—anywhere from 20 to 100 feet high.

I find this behavior puzzling. Are they simply resting? Taking a time-out for digestion? I have no idea. The herons don't appear to be watching anything, and they're certainly not keeping an eye the river and potential fishing holes. In fact, often when they perch in view of the stream, they sit with their backs to the water. So for now, I'll just chalk it up to up one more nature mystery, part of the growing list of things I don't know. 

But a good excuse to refill my mug and sit a tad longer…

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12 comments:

KathyB. said...

I just read and commented on your last post, and this post is a wonderful read too. Herons are magnificent, aren't they?They remind me of the dinosaur books' rendition of pterodactyls.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KathyB…

I have lots of great blue herons along "my" stretch of river. They do look rather prehistoric, rather like pterodactyls. And they make a sort of rattle-squawk that sounds exactly like a jungle-dwelling flying lizard—not that I've ever heard a jungle-dwelling flying lizard, mind you. But one can imagine. I'm a big heron fan.

Rowan said...

Herons are favourites of mine and I see them perching in trees often in the woods, there are three pairs nesting at the moment so lots of coming and going and noise. I wonder if they are digesting their food when they perch in trees? A bit like cows chewing the cud?

Jayne said...

It's almost like seeing a duck in a tree. Whaaaa? When I found the heronry, it really was odd to see all them perching with their gangly legs in the huge nests.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

There are a couple of great blue heron rookeries not too far from here. One is a streamside woods along another river. But the other is in a small, dense woods of large trees, located quite a ways from any stream larger than a step-across rivulet that's really just field drainage. This second, isolated site hosts about twenty pairs of birds. It always looks so strange to me to see them flying across fields and farmlands and into the woods where they have their big, loosely-constructed nests.

I do understand that behavior, however. But the herons' daily and year-around treetop sitting is see here is a puzzle. It may well be they're up there digesting their meals. Or it may be something else. I just don't know, which means I need to do a bit of reading and research.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

Yup—they just don't seem like tree-perching birds, though in large part, that's just our lack of real familiarity showing…knowing less than we think we do. I've certainly become more intimate with their habits since living here, beside the river, and watching and hearing them, day and night.

Grace said...

I've never seen a heron in a tree, so I never would have thought of them as tree sitters, but then I don't see them often or for long-stretches of time.

(Still trying not to visualize squirrels pole-dancing as mentioned in your last post!).

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Grace…

Well, I obviously don't know as much about herons as I thought—but I do know more than I once did, plus I now know some things that I don't know but want to know. (Now isn't that as clear as mud!)

Anyway, ignorance may be bliss, but it's still ignorance, and I need to find out what those tree-sitting herons are actually doing…even if they're doing nothing other than simply sitting in a tree.

Good luck at banishing images of pole-dancing squirrels from your imagination. I can't—which is why I didn't want to create the perfect opportunity for it to become actuality in plain view of my workroom window.

The Solitary Walker said...

A heron sitting in a tree!
There's nothing I would rather be.

Catching up on your posts, and glad to read things are still comfortably the same yet also deliciously mysterious on the river bank!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

While you were off trudging the muddy trails of Spain, I've photographed herons perching in trees and trying to eat fish too big to swallow; I've seen snow and fog and fed all manner of freeloading birds; and I am currently engaged in a nightly battle of wits with a thieving raccoon regarding rather expensive blocks of suet.

I, my friend, have been busy. Perhaps just typical days and routine events on a familiar riverbank—but also as new as the rising sun. (Not that I've actually seen a rising sun more than once or twice during the past month.)

At any rate, WELCOME BACK!

Tramp said...

Hi
Just to mention I looked in my old Mum's field guide to British birds and it says that some of these "heronries" in the UK have been used for more than a century.
Mum was a keen walker and birder, not with us for a number of years now, but when I'm out in the wild somewhere with Lady (she's the dog) I can feel her there.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Tramp…

Of the two heron rookeries I know locally, both have been around for decades—all my life and then some, at least. Possibly well over a century. I expect that once established, unless something changes thereabouts—houses get built too close by, timber is taken from the woods, etc.—a rookery might remain in the same location for generations, even centuries.

My mother—though not a formal birder, being more into wildflowers—loved birds and enjoyed watching them throughout the day, whether through a window, puttering in the yard, or out on a walk. The older I get, the more I can feel her hand and presence upon my life.