July 05, 2006
The new neighbor
I spent much of the Fourth of July working on writing projects on the back porch of our camp. Writing is a natural act to me, and it feels especially natural in the still of the dawn’s early light. Although my eyes were fixed on the screen of my laptop, they were also alert for animal movement around me.
The air was a little murky, a little yellow, the pond morning gray. I saw a great blue heron swoop in and land on a rocky peak that rises maybe six inches out of the water near our shore. I saw a mink swim toward our boulders with its catch. Then a raccoon walked right through the backyard. I stood for a better look, and the raccoon heard me, stopped and looked back. We made eye contact for two seconds before it bounded into the woods.
During the weekend I had seen a large bird in a deadish tree at the pond’s edge. Leaves obstructed its head from my view, but I saw that its body was a mottled brown, and I saw it at a distance in flight. It seemed to be about gull size. I guessed that it might be an osprey, but T.C. Cutter, who lives across the pond, didn’t think so. I know most of the birds on the pond, and maybe they know me, but this was a new neighbor.
I took a break from my work just after lunch. As I did, I looked out and saw our friends, Judi and Rich Locke, in their thankfully quiet aluminum launch, idling 20 feet from shore. Rich had on his goofy Fourth of July hat, a real attention-getter when the Lockes tour the pond, and Judy held her hand to her forehead as a visor. They were peering up into the tree at the bird I had seen. They kindly offered to pick me up and take me around for a better look. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed aboard.
The bird did not seem to mind the intrusion. It sat there while I catalogued its traits: leg color, eye color, beak shape. Clearly this was no raptor; it looked like a heron.
As we prepared to leave it in peace, the bird began to stir. Suddenly it defecated, and copiously, sending a white stream splashing into the pond below. “Must be a male,” said Judi Locke.
My brain hung onto the bird’s characteristics until I got back to the porch, but I didn't need them. I picked up my bird book and quickly found the bird’s spitting image. It was as though the photographer had shot the bird's picture right in that tree, 30 feet from where I sat.
It was an immature black-crowned night heron, a/k/a Nycticorax nycticorax. Bird literature says many unkind things about this species. They are the squat members of the heron family and do not assume the look their name implies until they turn 3. They are sluggish hunters, one guide says, mainly just standing there waiting for a fish or frog to happen by. They rob the nests of gulls and other heron species, gobbling their chicks. They eat just about anything, including garbage.
One guide describes their table manners this way: “Prey is shaken vigorously until stunned or killed and then juggled about in the beak and swallowed head first. They have strong digestive acids that can dissolve even bones. Their feces are white and limey because of the dissolved calcium.”
Well, I am always elated when I see a bird new to me, and it didn’t bother me one bit that the black-crowned night heron is a bad actor.
About the “night” word, incidentally, only speculation in the guides: Generally these herons do not begin to feed till dusk. Other herons are prone to attack them by day, but after breeding season, perhaps feeling safer, they are sometimes seen in broad daylight.
Later yesterday afternoon, Greg Chase, another pond friend, sailed his Sunfish to about the point where I had first seen the Lockes. Greg had heard about the heron and come to see it, but it was gone. We chatted, and I told him what I had found out about the bird and said I was sure it would be back.
“Good to have a new neighbor on the pond,” Greg said, and he swung his sail to catch the wind, and off he went.
Posted by Mike Pride at July 5, 2006 09:30 AM