I suppose that writing about birds in the fall is only natural as this is the season of migration. This week, however, I am happy to focus on a bird that sticks around through the winter. A map of its geographic range actually shows Maine in the year-round purple color rather than the fringe orange in the northernmost and blue in the southernmost parts of its habitat. It’s nice sometimes to think that we, in Maine, are not the northernmost habitat for at least some individuals of this species that sticks around for the winter.

The “gronk” of a Great Blue Heron can be heard echoing over the ice as its steely blue-grey heavy wings slowly flap across an equally steely wintry sky. There’s something equally as majestic and awkward about this big bird. As the largest of the North American herons, its body may look heavy, but an adult weighs only five or six pounds – the magic of hollow bones. Then, there is the heron’s strange serpentine neck that it can nestle back along its body or stretch out in an elongated “S” shape as it thrusts its spear-like beak straight through an unwitting fish almost too quickly to notice. The vertebrae in their necks are designed to allow them to strike with imperceptible speed.

Maybe its also partly their solitary nature that it is appealing – a lone, dark silhouette against the pale sky of early morning or at dusk. The heron lurks in the shallows, watching for the next victim of its spear-like beak, pulling up one spindly long leg at a time and carefully placing it back down in an awkward nodding motion. They use these dance like motions to attract mates as well, sometimes engaging in elaborate displays, ruffling their plumage in the process.

Herons are also rather amazing in their adaptability. Fresh water or salt, marsh or river, mangrove or swamp, they are able to live in quite a variety of habitats. Part of that is their ability to shift their diet from fish to include pretty much any small prey – mice, frogs, other smaller birds, for example, so that they can find food even once the water freezes. Then, they swallow their variety of catch whole, furthering the snaky comparison of their long necks to a reptile.

For a mostly solitary bird, herons tend to build their nests in groups called “heronries”. These are clusters of stick nests up in trees or on other tall platforms. Heronries can have more than 500 nests all clustered together – and the nests are not small by any measure. In order to fit this big bird, they measure up to 4 feet across and 3 ½ feet deep. Here, the female will lay up to a half dozen eggs which she will incubate for around a month before they hatch and learn to fish on their own. There’s something admirable about a bird that prefers to be alone – except when it likes to gather in great numbers with its friends (not very pandemic-friendly, but rather an enviable situation for us humans right now).

Probably because they are often found solo, they seem somehow to be wise. That may have something to do with their life span as well. On average, herons live about 15 years, but have been known to live as long as 23 years – a truly wise adult by then, to be sure. Whatever the case, as summer winds down and things along the coast begin to shift, the slow, steady beat of a Great Blue Heron’s wings is comforting and a good reminder of the importance of adaptability and perseverance amidst a changing horizon.

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