Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 20, 2007

Big League Farm Clubs

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 12:02 am

Part II: The Great Blue Herons

 Like the Eagles, the Great Blue Herons are also major players in the Michigan Big Bird league. The Herons have training facilities throughout the state and run one of the most successful farm systems in the country. My journey took me to Kensington Metropark near Milford to see the rookery there.

  The herons took up nesting residence in the Metropark on Kent Lake Island about a decade ago. The proximity of the colony to the boardwalk presents an unparalleled viewing opportunity and, because they return to the location every spring, the opportunity is repeated annually.  A short walk on the boardwalk leading from the nature center parking lot leads you directly to the spot.

  In short, the story begins in early April when the old nests are spruced up and the courtship ritual is honored. The birds get down to the business of laying 4-7 large olive green eggs which are incubated by the females at night-time and by the males during the daylight hours. The young hatch out in early May after a 25-29 day incubation period.                      Both parents participate in the feeding process in order to turn the ugliest chicks on earth into the ugliest fledglings on earth.  Servings of fish, frogs, snakes and fish – along with some more fish – are unceremoniously regurgitated to the eager brood.  The sushi primed young take their first test flight some 60 days after hatching and fly the coop soon after. The short story doesn’t do the thing justice, however.

  As I approached the colony yesterday morning, the continual “Ka-ka-ka-ka-ka” of the young herons (heronlets?) filled the air. It was a constant repetitious background sound that sound-tracked the scene from first approach to departure. Scattered across the highest branches of the newly leafed oaks, were approximately 13-14 huge stick nests. Each of these white-washed stick platforms sported uncomfortable little family groups consisting of a single adult and several chicks. 

  The posturing of the adult birds rendered a slightly surrealistic feel to the visual panorama. The highest one of the bunch was statuesque against the blue sky.  Her head and beak were tucked deeply into the fold at the angle behind the long neck. A pair of long black plumes coming off her head pointed straight up and waved in the breeze like two blades of grass. Another pointed his head straight up into the air and lowered his open wings into a classic yoga pose. The rest stood in patient repose while the young tussled about them.

  The young birds were about three-quarters grown and are streaky brown with ridiculous black mop tops. Many of the nests contained at least four heronlets (one had five young) and they are barely contained within the confines of their platforms. Like most families, all of the young were in a constant state of disagreement with their nearest siblings. Armed with formidable sword-like beaks, they sparred with each other and attempted to carve out space for their gawky legs.  One pair had locked beaks and engaged in a push and pull battle of wills.  The contest ended in a standoff and a bought of loud croaking.

  While fixated by the scene before me, I was nearly bowled over by a low approaching adult Heron that just cleared the boardwalk from behind me. I felt the rush of her 6 foot wingspan and was briefly encased by her substantial shadow. She proceeded to gain altitude with slow measured wing beats and soared into one of the nests.  Her motley crew welcomed her arrival with a rapid series of “ka” calls and grabbed at her beak, but she had nothing to offer them.

  As that last female returned (actually I don’t know if it was a female or not, I’m just trying to give equal time here) I caught a glimpse of white from the nest behind her.  This turned out to be an Egret sitting tightly on its eggs. Egrets usually nest within Heron rookeries and this colony is normally host to several pairs. These birds have a slightly shorter incubation and fledgling time than the gray and brown crowd around her, so I suspect it got off to a late start.

  Just in case you can’t make it out this year, there are several photographers that have posted pictures of this particular rookery on the web (such as these from Jay Levin). Colonies do come and go, however, so I’d suggest stopping by to take a look while you can. This colony should survive as long as the trees hold out. The tons of “toxic feces” raining down on the undergrowth will kill most of the plant life over time, but this is a relatively small rookery.  

  Seeing these magnificent birds eject streams of whitewash every few minutes reminds me of watching baseball players perform their habitual spitting rituals (from opposite ends of their respective bodies, of course).  This is life in the bush leagues.


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