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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bird Watching…Me in the Valley…

Spring snow

A wary bird is the Great Blue Heron. I see them frequently in the Valley, but they are camera-shy creatures. Usually by the time I remove the camera’s lens cover, the bird has clambered into flight, headed off for less crowded territory. At one sighting in the field south of Frohning Road I saw a dozen or more and wondered what attraction brought them there. Don’t know why, but the thought of a sudden abundance of little tree frogs came to mind, small but tender little morsels for a heron, I would imagine.

I have seen Great Blues wading in Riley Slough below the Lower Loop Bridge; I have seen them perched high in trees adjacent to Crescent Lake; one I saw in the old cottonwood snag east of the Upper Riley Slough Bridge by Aldens’ Victorian. Only the latter stuck around for a photo op. The others all wobbled off for more privacy.Heron perch

When I was a kid living along the Columbia River, we had our own resident Blue Heron. The big bird would park its stilts in the shallow waters offshore of The Island, a boulder strewn landmark below our house. Because of its laborious take-off and flight, we named the bird Old Pokey. We had a more generic name for Pokeys, but because I’m ever vigilant to keep The Ripple free of crudities, I will not share it here. Suffice it to say, the name originated from the bird’s characteristic habit, when startled into flight, of strafing the water with a prodigious amount of whitewash, rippling the calm waters into small tsunamis.

Our neighbors the Cardinals had a resident Blue Heron, too—for a while--until their new water feature no longer was home to any darting goldfish. The disappearing fish were a mystery to them; they would restock the little pond and a few days later not a solitary fish could be found. One summer morning early, I went out to do some exterior paint work on my barn. The morning mist hadn’t yet cleared. I noticed a bulgy hulking thing sitting on Jim and Katie’s t.v. antenna. Just as I set the ladder, the avian specter unfurled its bulky wings and lifted off into the fog.

The next day shortly after noon I went out to resume painting, glanced over at the neighbors’ yard and was amazed to see a huge heron in still life pose suspiciously close to the pond. I rushed to the house, called Jim, and told him if he’d quick look outside, he’d solve the mystery of the disappearing fish. Like my brother Tim once remarked, “They always go for the twenty dollar koi first!”

I admire writers who apply their special powers of observation to the avian world and can put into words the behaviors and flight patterns unique to a particular bird species. Anyone who has ever seen a heron take flight will agree he’s just observed a near aerodynamic impossibility; that such a mound of feathers can launch all those awkward appendages and keep them airborne, is nothing short of a miracle. In his novel Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier described a heron’s takeoff this way:

Then the heron slowly opened its wings. The process was carried out as if it were a matter of hinges and levers, cranks and pulleys.

No doubt about it: Frazier knew his herons.

The other day Gladys and I were tooling along the Loop Road by the Cambodians’ flower fields. There, high-steppin’ it through the daffodil rows, was a Great Blue. I came to a slow stop and slipped the camera out of my pocket. The heron froze in its spindly tracks. We stared at each other across the distance of one hundred feet. I could see the dark blue iridescence of its neck feathers (thus the heron’s common name). I fully expected the Pokey to heave itself aloft, but no--it decided to stride its getaway. I was able to take three photos before Ol’ Blue blended into the scenery. I post the first here—the best of the three. I’m afraid it’s a “Where’s Waldo” snapshot (or a Where’s Pokey?); I did the best I could. The bird’s there pokin’ along somewhere. Trust me.Great Blue Heron

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  1. I can easily spot Ol'Blue! Beautiful birds, those herons. I'll keep my eye out in my yard for it seems the species of wildlife here has grown significantly. I'll trade you your heron for my flicker? No taksies backsies...

  2. My mom always called em by their native name "shighpote" . There has always been a big estuary of them up on Stephans hill in the tall conifers behind where we lived on the Ben Howard Road. Also known forever is that Tualco "Qualco" means "where the two rivers meet". Kinda like "Tulalip" "Qulalalip" - Where many tribes meet = where white man put them from Skykomish and snoqualmie(qualco).

  3. A descendent--or relative--of the Stephans' colony (rookery?) is a resident heron in Jason Dean's pasture at the corner of Ben Howard and 203. I have my doubts the bird perched in the cottonwood snag in the posted photo is a G. Blue Heron. It's most likely some sort of smaller crane. What N. American dialect/language derives "qualco?" Interesting note: Longfellow in "The Song of Hiawatha" gave the blue heron this phonetic rendering from the Ojibwa "Shuh-shu-gah." Both terms were much kinder than our childhood nickname for the gangly bird.