As we waded carefully into the bog, it was as if we had entered a prehistoric world. Dragonflies darted over the water, lighting on lily pads and blades of tall grass. Songbirds whistled their melodies, greeting the morning sun. But it was the herons that made it all seem like a scene from Jurassic Park. Crowded in stick nests, high up in dead trees, these tall birds cackled and screeched, their long necks bending and dipping, their sharp beaks snapping at the air. When I imagine pterodactyls, those flying reptiles of days long gone, I imagine something much like those great blue herons.
At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 30, the day was already revealing itself to be a hot one. The great blue heron colony was located deep in the woods on private land in Penobscot County, and I had been invited there by Gail Smith of Etna, who monitors herons as a volunteer for the Heron Observation Network of Maine.
Gail and I have been friends for a few years now. We both enjoy photographing Maine wildlife, and I often comment on her photography on Facebook. It was when I commented on some of her heron photos that she offered to let me tag along on one of her heron monitoring trips. (I’m not telling the exact location because it’s on private property and it’s important that people don’t get too close to these colonies and disrupt the herons, which have been struggling a bit in Maine recently.)
The trip started with a 10-minute ride on Gail’s camouflaged ATV, which has an exceptionally comfy passenger seat. The ride would have been pleasant if not for pesky deer flies swarming, bumping into our heads and tangling into my ponytail. Fortunately, once we got off the machine, the flies slowly lost interest.
As we bushwhacked through the forest to the bog, long thorns of blackberry plants snagged at my jeans, and I thought how good it was that I hadn’t worn shorts. At the edge of the bog, Gail took out her notebook and started counting herons.
The nests — about 15 of them — were built high in skeletal trees standing at the center of the bog. Some nests didn’t seem to be holding any herons, while other nests held up to four young herons. It being so late in the season, many of the herons were almost as big as the adults and were almost ready to leave the nest; they looked ridiculous crowded together in such a small space, standing tall on stick-thin legs, begging for food from their parents.
After completing an initial count, Gail and I moved slowly into the bog and set up our tripods and cameras, being careful not to drop anything into the plant-filled water. The deer flies would leave us alone, after we stood still for a while, Gail told me. And to my amazement, she was right. They must be attracted to movement.
For more than an hour we stood there observing the colony and taking photographs as the sun rose higher, casting many of the birds in shadow. We watched adults swoop in and feed their young, regurgitating food into their long beaks. But for the most part, we counted and recounted the birds, trying to be as thorough as possible.
The herons hadn’t hatched all at the same time. While many of the nests held herons that were nearly ready to fledge, a few nests held newly hatched herons, which were tiny and homely, their heads covered with fuzzy grey feathers. Those nests were more difficult to take an accurate count of. The tiny herons could easily hide. For example, in one nest, we initially counted just one baby heron, but as we watched it, another head popped up.. then another.. then another!
I’d say we saw about 30 herons that day, if not more, though it was hard to keep count of all of the adults, which often perched on or near their nests but also left to hunt for food.
At around 10 a.m., we packed up our cameras and used our tripods to feel our way out of the bog, avoiding deep areas (where Gail has lost a boot or two). After wading back through the blackberry bushes, which were covered with white blossoms, we jumped back on Gail’s ATV and motored out of the forest.
Gail would return in week or two to count the herons again, and her findings would be sent to Maine Heron Observation Network, which is led by state biologist Danielle D’Auria. Since 2009, D’Auria has been researching why great blue herons have undergone a decline along Maine’s coast, and the network of volunteers helps her gather information from throughout the state. In 2015, 76 Heron Observation Network volunteers contributed data to her research. To learn more, visit http://www.maine.gov/wordpress/ifwheron/.