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Backyard Files: another heron sighting

By Stephen Press
Hometown Weekly Editor

Throughout the entirety of the autumn, I noticed a trend during my walks in the woods. 

It seemed every time I turned a corner in the vicinity of a body of water, I found a heron, typically a great blue heron, staring at me. As if the number of these heron coincidences weren’t already enough to get me thinking, the nature of the heron’s gaze pushed it over the top. 

Some birds will eye you with friendly curiosity; a chickadee, wren or hummingbird, for example, will examine you with the eager excitement of an exploring child. A heron, on the other hand, will stare through you, as though it’s seeking something in the depths of your soul. It’s one of the few birds that can make you, the observer, feel conspicuously, self-consciously observed.

It became so unsettling this season that I took to pointing out the heron-spotting trend to my colleagues and friends. Most recently, Hometown Weekly’s reporter even received a media-rich text message on a Sunday morning featuring one of these staring birds, along with some commentary (paraphrased): “Nothing to see here, just another one of these guys stalking me.”

Despite the recent “tension,” I’m no stranger to these birds. I’ve observed them since I was very young, when I used to believe that the soaring great blue herons overhead, with their six-foot wingspans and bare legs straight out behind them, may actually be members of an extant, undiscovered population of pteranodons.

I’ve got to hand it to my four-year-old self for creativity, but really, one doesn’t require any amount of imagination to make the great blue heron into a subject of wonder — the birds are well equipped to do all of that legwork on their own.

Speaking of legwork, it’s likely that you’ll first notice the great blue’s telescopic legs — or at very least its height — should you find yourself face to face with an individual. Standing up to 4.5 feet tall, they’re uncommonly large, among the biggest birds in New England. While wild turkeys are heavier and albatrosses, eagles and turkey vultures might have the herons beat in the wingspan department, none of those birds can match the heron in full upright posture. The sight of a bald eagle in flight might take your breath away, but you won’t mistake an eagle for a small child if you suddenly encounter it standing in front of you; a great blue will do just that. As appearances go, they’re no slouch, either. While you won’t mistake one for a bird of paradise, it has a stately, regal quality to it. A metallic blue coat covers the birds’ bodies and serpentine necks, topped off with a white head, long bill, and dark plumes that extend backwards over the scalp like a neatly-coiffed flapper haircut. In mating displays, these plumes can be raised, making for rather attention-getting headwear.

The birds are most entertaining to watch while hunting and feeding. Typically, you’ll find them along the shore, standing motionless in shallow water as they stare into the depths for their prey — chiefly fish and amphibians —  before spearing it with their bills. If you’re lucky enough to witness a successful strike, you’ll also have the pleasure of watching the bird maneuver its quarry to eat it. Given the heron’s propensity for catching prey that would suggest its eyes are much bigger than its stomach (or more appropriately, the circumference of its neck), this part of the feeding process often turns into a comedy of sorts.

In New England, great blue herons breed in early spring, selecting tall trees in which to build their nests. Their chosen sites are typically located in communal colonies, also called rookeries or heronries — areas where the birds congregate to nest and fledge their young in large numbers. Between March and April males will build nests — flat and wide ones, usually constructed with bare, larger branches — to attract a mate. The aforementioned plumes play a role in this process, as once a female has paired off with a chosen partner, the two individuals will perform a courtship display that involves raising their crests and clattering their beaks together. Chicks fledge six to eight weeks after hatching, with both the male and female playing a role in caring for the young.

Fortunately for both bird lovers and casual hikers alike, the great blue heron is a fairly common sight along the shores of New England’s wetlands; seeking its soul-piercing gaze will not entail much extra effort in our region. One Hometown Weekly reader, in fact, fairly recently reported that an individual bird stopped by for a visit at his backyard frog pond and promptly drained it of goldfish.

Those of us who are not fortunate enough to receive house-calls from the great blue, however, can find them in unbothered areas where water and prey species proliferate. It would be difficult to put together a canonical list of places to explore, if only because there are so many. 

In Walpole, Turner Pond or Clark’s Pond would be great places to look, as would the Endean Trail, which leads hikers along Plimpton and Bird ponds. Medfielders would be wise to explore the trails at Rocky Woods, any and all trails around the Charles River wetlands, and even Vine Lake (which gives the cemetery its name) for feeding herons. In Needham, the all-too-obvious answer is to head to the Blue Heron Trail at Cutler Park, which takes hikers through acres of wetlands along the Charles. In Westwood, Rice Reservation and Lyman Pond, which sit behind the high school and middle school, are ideal — but there are bound to be herons by the shores of Buckmaster Pond and Perry Crouse Pond, as well. And finally, while Dover and Sherborn have plenty of wetland corners to explore, I am personally partial to Leland Mill Pond — it is wonderfully quiet and intimate, so any potential sightings should be fairly close-up. Noanet Woodlands in Dover, which boasts four ponds on the property, provides another excellent local option.

Those who’d like a glimpse at a heronry, meanwhile, will need to wait until March or April for a good look — but when the time comes, a drive to nearby Wrentham’s Wollomonopoag Conservation Area fits the bill; a recent count placed the number of nests in the rookery at over thirty.

As for the herons that started staring into my soul in the autumn, I can only hope they’ve found something good in there, because they haven’t stopped. Within a minute of beginning my first walk of the winter, I witnessed a great blue successfully strike at a sunfish in the shallows and neatly maneuver the meal down its throat. The bird then turned to me and stared intensely, as it always does.

Whatever they’re trying to tell me, I’m pretty sure they mean it.

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