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…