One summer afternoon, I accompanied a great blue heron who was learning to live without flying.
I was sitting on my favorite rock in Mine Falls Park, just about to leave, in fact, when I noticed the heron on a log about thirty yards away. I turned on my camera and moved a few steps closer for a clearer shot.
The bird stretched his wings up over his back in two great arches, bent his breast toward the ground and fluffed his feathers all around, then defecated. All classic pre-flight operations for a large bird.
Great! I'd get another movie of a great blue heron taking off. I tried to anticipate where he might go, so I could try to keep him in frame as he flew.
But he didn't fly. He just stood there on the log a few feet out into the Mill Pond. As the minutes passed, I noticed something odd about the heron's left shoulder, but I couldn't quite make it out.
Then he did something I've never seen a great blue heron do before. He walked along the log back toward shore, climbed onto a low rock among the reeds and grasses, and just stood there.
Now, great blue herons often hide among reeds and grasses while hunting in shallow water. And they roost in trees rather far from the water. And they often rest on shore after hunting, but virtually always in a clearing that gives them a clear view of the water (and, I presume, a clear runway where they can take off when they're ready, as they always do after they rest on shore).
Here was a great blue heron resting on a very low perch on land surrounded by covering reeds and grasses. Something was very odd here.
After a few minutes, the heron returned to the water and began hunting along the edge of the reeds. Very curious now, I walked quietly toward the bird and stopped at a good vantage point.
Along the way, I examined the rock that had been his perch. The surrounding grass and ground were completely whitewashed with bird droppings. Obviously, the heron had been roosting here often, and for at least a couple of days. Very odd.
I continued approaching the heron. He was clearly aware of my presence - I was being quiet, but not actually "stalking," because I didn't want to startle him - but he was not concerned. He looked at me, surprisingly briefly, then went back to his hunting.
This was more unexpected behavior. Great blue herons are large and powerful birds, and I assume that, being predators, they must be fairly intelligent as birds go, but nevertheless, they are generally very shy of humans. The only times I had been this close to one before were those occasions when I had startled one off its roost and it flew away in alarm. Here was a great blue heron, fully aware that I was watching, calmly hunting in the shallow water less than five yards away.
My camcorder battery was nearly depleted, and I had neglected to bring a spare. Conserving power, I missed a couple of opportunities to record the bird catching and eating a fish. I decided I'd better stick with it, and let the battery go dead if it would. The heron's patience was greater than my camera's recording capacity. As I stopped to change discs, the heron caught and swallowed another small fish.
As the bird worked his way farther east along the shallow southern shore of the Mill Pond, I gradually worked my way closer and closer. Within an hour, I was standing less than six feet away from this magnificent predator as he calmly went about his business. I was aware that I was within striking distance of that spear-like bill, so I didn't try to get any closer. If the heron had half a brain, he would be aware that he could do me some damage, and I strongly suspect that herons have at least half a brain.
The heron turned and began working his way out into the pond.
At a reedy shallow point, the heron turned and began working his way out into the pond. Now I could see his left shoulder again. There was a not-quite-healed wound right about at the "knuckle" of his wing. It was probably a few days old. About three or four square inches of inner down was showing, which would normally be covered by the outer "contour" feathers. He might even be missing a couple of primary flight feathers. I replayed my memory of how he had flexed his wings when I thought he was going to fly, and decided that there were probably no broken bones.
This injury might explain some of the heron's odd behavior. Maybe he can't fly. Maybe he rested in a secluded patch of dry grasses because he couldn't roost in a tree, and he didn't feel secure in the open.
It might also explain why he was so calm despite my following him so closely. He might be resigned to the fact that he can't fly away from humans, and he might have noticed that the humans who did approach him in his wounded condition never tried to hurt him. And I was not interfering with his hunting, so he might as well continue.
After I finally recorded a successful strike on my camcorder, I switched to taking still pictures. This takes less battery power.
The classic upright pose of the great blue heron.
The great blue heron poised to strike.
I forget how many pictures I took. I got some of the classic upright heron pose, the equally classic poised-to-strike pose, a few close-ups of the wounded shoulder, and a few new-and-astonishing-to-me close-ups of a great blue heron's eye. At last, my battery finally died.
Then I just stood and watched. I sincerely wished this heron well, but there was nothing I could do for him. He seemed to be feeding well enough - I watched him eat six small fish within an hour and a half. And as long as the foxes, raccoons, and stray dogs would leave him alone, he should be able to fly in a week or two.
I've been seeing great blue herons in Mine Falls Park for years now. I rarely saw more than one at a time, but I never knew whether I was seeing the same one repeatedly or several individuals. For all I knew, I might never have seen the same individual twice (but most likely, I was seeing the same few herons every time).
But now there is a heron in the park that is, in my mind, unlike any other. Will he remain so? Will he continue to be a heron who hunts unafraid while I approach within yards of him? Will he continue to be a heron who has some visible mark on his left shoulder?
I'll try to keep an eye on this heron. I like to think that he will remember that he can stay calm when I approach. But it's probably better for him if he remembers to fly away when humans get too close.
And whenever I see a great blue heron, I'll try to get a very good look at his left shoulder.
Epilogue: A week later, I saw this heron again. He flew in, from where I don't know, and landed on a stump across a narrow neck of the Mill Pond from my favorite sitting rock. The wound on his left wing was now almost invisible. I burned up two mini-DVDs waiting for him to fly again, but he never did. Instead, I used the last two minutes of my discs recording the heron catching a large bluegill in deep water and swimming (yes swimming) back to the stump. I ran out of disc before he swallowed it. He's doing fine.
The great blue heron swimming like a duck in deep water with a large fish in his bill.