Or, Hold those Fireworks!
(Note: Except for one photo of “our” heron, pictures of herons in this post are from the internet.)
In the beginning we did not understand that the herons had first ownership. We accepted the great blues as belonging to the watery woodlands, invited their loafing and fishing in our slip, became heron watchers from our porch.
It was a treat, catching glimpses of the deep, steady, beat of wings, arch of neck, coat of velvet during majestic flights up the canal. Here, we said, are nature’s true aristocrats.
(Except when herons squawk. Head-turners those squawks are, like cockney spilling from the mouth of a powder-wigged earl. Or, to latter-day ears, blasts from a croaky klaxon.)
Herons are most patrician when they stand silent, solitary, watchful — for how long? — on our turtle log, once a fulsome pine, now retired, taking the waters.
Turtles count the log as their territory, but when the big guy sails in, they plop speedy and graceless into the water, well clear of that controlled, balletic landing eased by wings that double as parachutes. We laugh. They are the jester’s counterpoint to royal lineage.
Each landing is a perfect touchdown — on a slippery log, mind you — though long toes with talons give strong grip. My, we exclaim, what wonderful balance.
Still as a sphinx , he scans the water. For how long? Probably not for long by his reckoning, but we who never learned that waiting on line is good for the soul become impatient.
When is he going to do something?
Ah, there, did you see that? How he stabbed at the water?
Uh, no I didn’t, I must have been distracted by the cardinal that flew in, or maybe I blinked.
No matter, he missed that time. Yes, herons do sometimes miss the mark, more often when they’re youngsters.
When he doesn’t miss, now that is something to see. By rights, the impaled fish should remain stuck on his beak. Not so. With a flick of his head the heron releases the fish, tosses it easily into the air, and gulps it down whole. So fast it’s hard to take in. If the fish is big enough, we can watch the lump make its way down that long neck.
Considering the regal behavior we have witnessed, I never expected what happened one day several years ago.
I was practically face down into the soil, planting iris near the slip, when I heard frenzied squawking.
I followed the noise and spotted a bird in trouble, wildly flapping his wings, teetering on a branch.
Our heron? In disarray? What in the world are you doing up there? I called. Come on, surely you can take off and fly? Must be a kid testing its wings.
I continued planting. The squawking continued, maybe louder, if that were possible, and the balancing act, too. I scolded. He squawked. I scolded. He squawked. What did he want? I turned my back square. Squawk away, if you like.
The squawking stopped.
Silence at last. Back to planting irises.
I began to feel a spooky sort of presence. The world was too quiet. The back of my neck tightened. Where did the heron go?
Purposefully casual, I turned ever so slightly.
The heron had landed about fifteen feet behind me. Silent. Patient. Waiting as long as it would take for me to acknowledge his presence.
Once I turned full around, the clucking began, a sort of confidential tete a tete. Or was it pleading? I murmured questions. The bird murmured answers. Back and forth we went, crooning gibberish to each other, each of us immobile, gazes locked.
The bird was patient, more patient than I, it would seem. Edgy, I escalated the gibberish. “Tell me, what is your problem?”
The bird sensed my change in tone and escalated his squawking.
Frustrated because this biped was not getting the message? Was there a threat implicit in the squawk?
The heron began to approach me in that measured way herons have of placing each foot down square as they consider the next step.
I’d never thought much about the size of a heron – but let me just say that they are much bigger up close than you would think from images in books or binoculars.
Nor had I thought much about that dagger-beak, since it was only targeted for fish, wasn’t it?
Even during those intimate murmurings, these things hadn’t occurred to me.
Nor was I prepared for how scraggly the bird looked. This was one unkempt, tired-looking bird. Stringy, matted feathers.
Apparently grooming was not a priority. The long views of velvet-in-flight were replaced now by close-ups of raggedy ringlets.
As the heron approached, I began to think about all these things.
I had an epiphany.
This garden wasn’t ours. It belonged to the heron, and by golly, he was welcome to it whenever he wanted to claim it. Okay, okay, it’s all yours.
Scrambling like a turtle-jester falling off a log, trampling plants along the way, I retreated. When I turned to look from a safe distance, the heron was gone.
I never figured out what happened that day. Maybe an errant young bird needed help and a frazzled parent was trying to make things right. But where from? There was no rookery nearby. Surely we would have heard it, maybe even smelled it.
Herons create group hobo camps when they breed, build their twiggy nests in the branches of unlucky trees. Nobody tends to housekeeping, so by the time the demanding, noisy young gobble fish regurgitated by their parents, then splatter poop everywhere, the colony can quickly become a whitewashed slum with a nose-busting stench.
You can ask the residents of a certain street in Santa Rosa, California if you doubt me. Herons and egrets have adopted a eucalyptus tree there as their rookery.
During breeding season there is so much guano and such foul odors, neighbors sometimes go berserk. One lit off firecrackers at the base of the tree. The herons didn’t notice. Fishing was too good in the nearby lagoon.
What do you know? Who would have thought that Mr. Majesty was such a mess up close – and a crafty thief, to boot.
That reality hit us later, when we decided to clean out our small pond near the porch. We didn’t think it needed cleaning, but everyone with a pond said it was important to clean a pond regularly, and so did the books.
Frankly, we thought the few goldfish we had looked pretty good, even though they were mostly hidden among pickerel weed and arrowhead and one water lily that sent its pads out to all corners.
It was a lot of work, but we said we would be speedy. No need to remove the fish.
We drained a good bit of water and removed the plants, which exposed the fish, which speedily alerted the heron during one of his flyovers, which prompted the lawn-chair barricade, which began the rout.
He landed some ways away, skulking, no doubt assured we wouldn’t notice him. (Pretty difficult to miss a bird that stands five feet high with a six-foot wing span.)
He stalked, graceful, pink-panther-like. Dipping low, slinking behind two-foot azaleas, playing for invisibility. Tiptoeing fast, like a roadrunner, to cross open space.
Sidling around tree trunks. Rubbernecking.
Planning the next move, crafty. Rubbernecking.
Scooting behind billowy grass. Rubbernecking.
Would he be bold enough to close in? No. Too near the house. Too many obstacles. Remember those lawn chairs? We turned our backs for a few minutes. . .
Much later I read about a heron gorging on fingerlings in a nursery pond, tricking young fish into surfacing by alighting where the caretaker stood when he fed them.
He almost got away with the pilfering, but the weight of that feast in his tummy was too much drag. He could not take off properly. He tried to disgorge ballast. Alas, he never saw the truck coming down the pike.
Sounds like a fable, but we had learned well that herons try any ruse to snatch a fish. That’s why gardeners top their ponds with metal cages.
That’s why we don’t clean our pond or feed the fish any more. The pond remains fine and healthy. The few fish make a living beneath healthy stands of plants that camouflage the water surface.
A resident green frog chirrups around lunchtime. And dragonflies loaf on spikey stems of pickerel weed.
And so we discovered that the great blue heron is not all royal velvet. Behind the façade are noisy croaks, sneaky ways, a certain gluttony, and slovenliness.
Yet the vision remains. We ignore the tarnish. It’s like being finessed by a smooth orator and discovering the Wizard of Oz and dismissing the discovery as propaganda.
In the end, we made a truce with the heron. We accepted the heron’s ownership of our garden. He doesn’t exact much tribute from us. It comes down to sole possession of the turtle log when he wants it. But he is leaving our fish alone (probably because it’s impossible to find them among the plants.)