Opinion

"In its native solitudes, far from the haunts of man, it may be seen standing motionless, in lonely dignity,..."

Arthur Cleveland Bent,1926

Longboat Key, FL - Its tall ravaged trees and white sands make Beer Can Island a picturesque setting to watch the great blue herons that nest and hunt there. Beer Can is not an island but the northernmost tip of Longboat Key, where my wife and I are spending our fourth winter. One morning, walking among shaded mangroves, I stopped in my tracks and stared. Standing motionless among them was a great blue. The bird's basic gray body and long black legs camouflaged it so well, that even though I walk Beer Can almost every morning I hadn't seen it. Mysterious.

These tall, gray, fish-eating birds measuring 46-inches, perhaps our most commonly seen heron, keep a wary eye out. They will walk away if a person walks too close or will fly off crying loudly and hoarsely. One morning some people were getting good photos of a few herons, particularly one that was perched on top of a fallen tree, its tall gray and white body seeming to grab throw-always. By the time I had walked home and returned with my camera, the good early morning light had changed and there were no great blues.

Soon one appeared. I settled between some fallen dead trees in back of a few fishermen, fixed my camera lens and hoped the blue might come closer. The heron stayed out of good range until a fisherman came in back of me holding a prize. It was a fish, which he tossed on the sand in front of me. Throwing caution to the winds the heron came over in a flurry. The aroused bird speared the fish in less than a second with its javelin-like bill, then swallowed it sand and all. I quickly clicked the shutter. Months later I read an 1840 account of the great blues by Audubon. "It always strikes its prey through the body, and as near the head as possible," he wrote. I checked the photo I'd taken and sure enough the heron had speared the fish in just such a spot. Some things apparently don't change.

Great blues may use nests year after year repairing or adding to them. At the end of March I chanced on the nest of a pair of great blues. One of the herons was standing in it. The nest itself is somewhat flat, made of sticks perhaps two feet across. It was on a limb in an Australian pine tree by a tidal lagoon in back of some mangroves. The herons had picked their location well. It was recessed off the water and faced east which meant that in the morning anyone would have to look into the sun to see it.

The next morning one of the herons was in the nest and three others were standing on various nearby limbs. Soon a fifth heron came and placed a stick it had carried into the bill of the heron in the nest. While its mate attended to the nest the stick carrier stayed a while but soon flew off. Later one of the herons was still in the nest and to my surprise the carrier came back again with another stick again placing it in the bill of its mate.

Thirty minutes later two great blues, near the gray trees, were waiting patiently in back of a fisherman. Wanting to see them as closely as possible I walked past the closest one, purposely not looking at it. Birds don't like direct eye contact with humans; if it happens flight may follow. I sat on a nearby fallen tree taking notes. Both kept an eye on me but otherwise didn't seem bothered by my presence. After a while the bird closest to me got off the fallen tree on which it was standing and started walking purposefully across the sands. It walked over to a fallen tree limb, picked up a stick and flew to the nest! This guy was the stick carrier and I had inadvertently found his supply source.

After giving the stick to its mate the carrier didn't hang out but flew almost directly over my head to the beach. There it proceeded to chase the other heron from the place it had chosen to wait for a throw-a-way from a fisherman. I would like to have stayed and seen more of what I was sure was a mating pair. I would have liked to watch them build or repair their nest and if possible incubate their eggs. Both adults share the responsibility for incubation, which takes about 28 days. Interestingly the herons, using their massive bills, turn the eggs every two hours. I would have loved to watch the parents feed the nestlings, which they do by regurgitating food directly into the chicks' mouths. And I would have enjoyed seeing the nestlings grow day by day. But my wife and I were going home the next day and had last minute packing to do. What irony, we were leaving an empty nest on Longboat Key while the herons were building one.

While packing, I couldn't help but think about a scene I'd witnessed back on Beer Can. One morning after spotting a still great blue in the shadows of a mangrove I stood watching it when another man walked past. Upon spotting the great blue he too stood there motionless and silently stared at the bird taking in the sight. Face to face great blues have that effect.

Watching these birds in flight over the beach can be a treat. One morning a great blue heron flew in straight over the deserted beach. Its gray, feathered body propelled by wings which span six-feet came toward me as the bird let out a hoarse cry. It then arched upward and landed at the very top of a tall dead tree looking like a carver had fashioned it from the tree itself as it surveyed the landscape. I've seen dozens if not hundreds of great blues but this one was simply magnificent.


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