Still Life

100_2231Looking through my binoculars, I could see one Great Blue Heron perched on a broken branch in a deadwood tree. The weathered tree was in the middle of a large open water wetland.  The Heron seemed to be standing watch over several nests that were clustered closely together.  I was well hidden in a make shift pine bough blind on the other side of the wetland so the heron had no idea that I was observing him.  The early morning sun highlighted the bird’s blue gray feathers giving the bird the appearance of wearing a steel blue robe.  I was struck with the heron’s majestic stature as it steadfastly teetered on the branch looking out for potential danger.  The Heron was a model of patience, sitting perfectly still for what seemed like hours.  The great bird was perfectly camouflaged.  When the sun went behind a passing cloud the gray heron blended with the weathered tree in the background. The sharp angle of the heron’s beak and the thin stick-like legs, made the bird appear to be an extension of the branch on which it sat.


To the west of the heron rookery a Canada Goose began honking hysterically on the other side of the pond.  The Great Blue Heron turned his head and peered towards the commotion, surveying the area in search of threats.  As I put my binoculars to my eyes for a better look at the area I was distracted by a squadron of several herons flying in unison towards my direction.  Each of their long necks was folded back neatly against their bodies, exposing the large heads and long beaks that are so prominent in this species.  They flew only several feet above the water, artfully dodging a myriad of dead trees that stood erect in their flight path.  The herons looked like small terradactyls with their folded neck, large, pointed beak, and two long wings that flapped only occasionally with seemingly little effort. The birds cut through the low fog that hung over the swamp on this humid morning; each time they slowly flapped their wings the steamy fog was pushed aside by the wind currents made by their powerful wings.  The Herons circled in a clockwise direction around the perimeter of the wetland.  As they approached my position on the ground I could hear their powerful wings moving the air; the steady rhythm of the wing movement was nearly melodic.  Flying past me, they turned sharply towards the nesting area.  As they approached the dead trees the herons extended their legs and changed the angle of their wings to slow them for an error free landing.   The Herons reached with their feet and gently grabbed a sturdy branch, each landing next to their respected nests.  Two of the birds immediately climbed into their nest and covered the shelled vessels that housed their chicks. The individual heron that had been standing watch while the others enjoyed their flight immediately set off to the east over the tops of the trees on a nearby hill in search of some exercise and perhaps a quick meal.


The goose across the pond continued to make a great fuss on the other side of the lake and my attention was brought back to its original place.  Refocusing my binoculars I could see some quick movements in the rushes near the goose nest.  A moment later I saw another quick movement.  This time it appeared as a small brown blur.  Despite the magnification of my high power binoculars I was having a difficult time identifying the prowler that was alarming the mother goose.  Once more I saw movement in a small alley between some rushes and cattails.  The animal darted about nervously, there was little doubt that it was a mink. 


The dark colored mink approached the goose nest.  At first the mother looked confused and I thought she might abandon the nest.  She briefly hopped in the water, feigning a broken wing to attract the mink away from the nest.  The mink was apparently not fooled and moved quickly towards the reeds where the nest was hidden on the ground in very dense vegetation.  The mother goose had made so much noise that another goose appeared.  It was likely the mate of the mother goose.  He positioned himself between the predator and the nest, head and neck extended with his wings spread to full span in an effort to make himself look larger.  The mother goose came out of the water with great intensity and positioned herself slightly to the left of the gander.  She also extended her head and neck and spread her wings to form a very threatening wall.  Together they would have been intimidating to most would-be predators but the mink had to have a go at the nest and faked to the left and then to the right.  The geese adjusted their positions with ease and grace defending the nest to their rear.  The mink stood on its hind legs perhaps looking for an access through this shield.  The geese then charged without abandon and the mink retreated with no haste into the open pond where he dove under the surface of the water and apparently swam away.  It was clear that the mink realized a nice breakfast could be had more easily somewhere else with a whole lot less risk. 


After several minutes of honking celebration the geese quieted down.  The mother nervously settled back into her nest while the gander kept watch.  It was clear they were both alert and ready to defend the nest with their lives, if necessary.


Marveling at this whole series of events, it was hard to refocus on the Heron’s nest.  As I looked over in their direction I noticed that the Herons were also on alert, still peering in the direction of the goose hatchery.  For the moment perhaps the Herons felt safe nestled high in a dead tree above the wetland.  Still, there was no doubt that like all animals in the wild they sensed that they too would have moments when heroic efforts would be necessary to protect their young.  Perhaps it would be against a crow trying to rob the eggs or young fledglings from the nest, perhaps it would be against a raccoon who could climb the dead tree and climb into the nest, or perhaps they would have to defend their nest against an owl who might think the fledglings a fine delicacy.  Certainly some other animal had evolved over eons and eons to prey on these magnificent birds or their young; just as the Heron has adapted to forage on bullfrogs and yellow perch.


That is the way of nature.   


Originally written for the Heath Herald in May of 1991.

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