In Search of a New Heron Legacy

Long before the present stewards and owners of this beaver pond, Kerrie and Jansen McNay, gave it the name Blackbird Kerr this wetland was inhabited by beavers. At the top of the watershed for Davenport Brook this large wetland has its origin back to about 12,000 years ago after the exit of the last parts of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The area left behind was made wet by groundwater discharge, rearranged and compacted soils, as well as the new topography which was relatively flat and an excellent place for water to collect. Geomorphic features have a way dictating natural history. This area was destined to be exactly what it is; a beaver pond and when not in active use a beaver meadow.

No doubt the area served as beaver habitat for centuries. Long before European settlers ever ventured to these parts our indigenous people were taking advantage of the incredible habitat created by beavers. These ponds often have large areas of emergent marsh around their perimeter where cattails, bulrush, and sedges can grow. The native people knew cattails were good for food, excellent for basket making, and were also needed for a variety of other daily uses. These complete ecosystems had beaver-made dams that held back water, stilled sediments, kept downstream water clean, and were good fishing ponds. Otters, muskrat, herons, geese, ducks, and a variety of birds all found home in the beaver pond. It was, in essence, a gold mine of needed natural resources.

Along with the newest explorers and settlers of the area; those of European ancestry, came a new concept of resource use. The idea of living along side and within the ecological boundaries of resources was replaced with resource use and depletion. The European model viewed resources as a commodity that was there for human consumption and when the resource was depleted those utilizing the resource either moved on or found different means of supporting their needs often by exploiting another resource. Such was the fate of the American beaver. It’s pelt was so revered that the colonies earliest economy was based on beaver trapping. Not too far away the beaver pelt trading capital of the northeast was founded along the Connecticut River in a little town known as Springfield. Springfield was ideally situated because it was near prime beaver trapping territory and along a major river along where barge loads of beaver pelts could be transported to world markets. The result was that the beavers in New England were extirpated. Beaver ponds became beaver meadows. As the beaver meadows dried up trees grew in higher, less water logged, areas. Wetland forests reestablished themselves over long periods of time.

After well more than a hundred years beavers were reintroduced to Massachusetts in 1932. The exact date that beavers arrived in Heath, and more important in Blackbird Kerr, is not known but sometime in the 1930′s is a good guess. The beavers no doubt, as beavers do, surveyed the upper Davenport Brook watershed on both sides of Swamp Road and determined that it was excellent habitat. Beaver dam building began immediately. Not only did the beavers reside in Blackberry Kerr but where Papoose Lake (formerly Davenport Pond) is now. The two areas together totaled about 70 acres of beaver habitat, the home to at least a dozen beavers, and all of the many glorious species, both plant and animal, that live harmoniously in large beaver habitat areas. The flooding of the black spruce, balsam fir, and hemlock forest resulted in the death of many trees. They lost their foliage and eventually most of their branches. But this loss was the gain for the Great Blue Heron. In the early 1970′s a significant heron rookery was established that included about 8 mated pairs who built their 5-6 foot diameter nests in remnant trees, surrounded by water, to raise their families. The nearby smorgasbord of frogs, trout, perch, snakes, salamanders, and insects provided the necessary forage habitat for these great birds. The deep water around the dead trees prevented predators from reaching the heron chicks. Life was grand for the heron’s for a while. But nature has a habit of not being static. The aging trees in the deep water began to topple in the 1990′s until last year when only two nests remained. One in a tall tree that has a rotten bottom that will fall over soon. The second only about five feet above the water in a makeshift nest that is not in the high rent district for Great Blue Herons. In one or two more years it is likely that the remaining nests will be lost.

I’ve studied this beaver pond for more than 40 years. I’ve spent countless hours there spying on wildlife; beavers, otter, great blue heron, black snakes, and the occasional moose. It is certainly one of the richest wildlife habitats in the Town of Heath. It is, indeed, a gold mine of a natural resource.

Concerned about the loss of the heron nesting habitat I hatched a plan with the McNays, really an experiment, to see if we could reestablish a larger heron rookery at Blackbird Kerr. This year we started by building simple artificial branches in a couple of the remaining trees. One is about 15 feet off the top of the water in an old branchless 15 inch diameter oak tree snag that is surrounded by acres of water. The bottom of tree is remarkably solid. It should stand for quite some time. In February Jansen, Ramon Sanchez from nearby Rowe, and I ventured out on the ice with a ladder, a deer stand tree climber, six two by fours, a portable drill, and some hardware. We established some artificial branches on the snag that hopefully are suitable for nesting. I’ve seen heron’s build nests on just nubs of branches and so we can be sure that these are not only sturdy enough but have wide open spaces allowing the adult herons to easily access the nesting site for both building the nest but also rearing the chicks. Once the huge heron nests are established the artificial branches will be only minimally visible.

A new base for a great blue heron nest in progress.

A second nesting site was established on a smaller, much narrower snag to the north and east. This one is more visible from the road which may be a detraction for future nest use primarily because heron’s enjoy their privacy. The good news is that I’ve looked at nests that were in close proximity to the public before that were successfully established and utilized. This second nest is about 8 feet off the top of the water. This is a little low but certainly more elevated than the lower existing nest on the west side of the beaver pond.

The second, smaller nest base, on a much smaller deadwood tree.

We are hopeful that the heron’s will utilize these artificial nesting sites. It really is unknown if they will deem them to be suitable. Time will tell.

Next year we plan on establishing large 20 foot high tripods for heron rookery habitat. This will require a permit from the Heath Conservation Commission as we will be establishing the pole, tipi style, tripods in the actual wetland. These likely have a greater chance of nesting success. We plan on building one or two to see if they are successful in attracting heron nesting activity. If they do attract herons to nest in these new structures more could be added.

Our attempt to do something for the heron nesting population is founded in our reverence for nature. Perhaps the McNay’s will someday find themselves among larger numbers of great blue herons. Perhaps their son Enzo will have the opportunity to experience more of these wonderful creatures at close range. It is this connection with our planet that keeps all of us interested in protecting the natural world.

And our efforts will do well to begin at home.

Completed nest base in larger tree.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in March of 2017.

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