(Copyright © 2010)

After we drove together to a meeting of the Maine Chapter of the Wildlife Society where I presented a talk, Danielle D’Auria, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), asked me to write a post about great blue herons for her blog aimed at 75 wildlife volunteers. Which I did, basing it mostly on experiences I recall from 23 years ago. As such, it was an exercise in consciousness of situations that no longer exist but live in my personal memory. When I die, they will die—unless I write them down. Here’s what I wrote.

Great blue herons maintained a heronry on 30-acre Burying Island in Taunton Bay, Maine, from roughly 1959 to 1999. Every year they’d follow the frost line up the coast, arriving on or about the first of April. Pairs would mate on the outer branches of red and white spruce trees shortly thereafter, build and refurbish nests, and incubate typically five eggs in each nest. Juveniles fledged in mid-August. Much of the colony stayed on the bay until the shoreline began to freeze in late December. Then they’d fly to warmer climes, I never knew where.

I was privileged to live from June 1986 through December 1988 in a one-room cabin I’d built on the island. Three families owned the island in undivided shares, and granted a conservation easement to the MDIFW in 1984. The heronry was in the 15-acre parcel designated a forever-wild sanctuary. Living close by, I had ample opportunity to observe the herons flying, feeding, nesting, loafing, and dealing with hungry bald eagles, classified as fish eagles, but having an acquired taste for herons and ducks.

When pursued by an eagle, flying herons had an emergency maneuver in which they would up-end one wing and drop the other, effectively spilling the air that provided lift so they would abruptly drop 20 or 30 feet, then pull up heading along the back azimuth of the direction they’d been flying—leaving the eagle above them in cold pursuit of a phantom. This was no ad hoc tactic; I saw juveniles practice it several times in succession until they got it right. The only flaw being that if they had to repeat the maneuver, they lost so much altitude they sometimes couldn’t do it one more time.

Four or five to a clutch, nestlings were more vulnerable. I saw one eagle on a branch near a nest with two immature herons fending it off, repeatedly stabbing with their bills by thrusting their necks forward again and again for half an hour, the eagle staying just beyond reach, the pair exhausting themselves, eagle then swooping in and grabbing each bird by the neck in its talons. No sound is more pitiful than the outraged klaxon a heron sounds in the clutches of an eagle.

In the early years, I estimate the heronry contained well over 200 nests, producing an average of three or four young in each. By 1993 it was down to 96 nests by actual count (after the herons had flown). In 1999, I saw 50 herons (25 pairs) abandon the heronry when attacked by one eagle. In early April I was out in my peapod and saw the whole thing. The herons had arrived from the southland the day before, looking exhausted by their trip. Apparently, the eagle saw them too. Having built two nests on the island, it was waiting for them. When it arrived for lunch the next day, the entire colony took to the air, milled just above the trees, squawked loudly, and abruptly struck farther east in search of safer quarters elsewhere. I never found out where they went. Their guano killed the trees they nested in, which eventually blew down, and have yet to grow back. When they do, perhaps the herons will try again, which would be unlikely if the eagle is still around.

The herons seemed to rely on their numbers for protection. Each day, adults would fly off in every direction to find food, sometimes being gone for several hours, leaving their young largely unprotected except in a statistical sense by the occasional bird returning to feed the young in one nest or another. When a parent would near the heronry with a full gullet, it would emit a solitary “grawk,” which its own nestlings would always identify (I could tell by their sudden signs of alertness and anticipation) and all others ignore.

But adults didn’t simply put dinner on the table. They made their young earn it. In fact, they made it as difficult as possible by perching on the edge of the nest, raising their bill skyward, then waiting for one or another of the young to force their neck downward so food would spill into the bottom of the nest. The most aggressive of the clutch would perform this service by grabbing the adult’s bill in its own, then dragging and twisting it against a show of resistance until the adult’s bill pointed down, releasing a morsel of fish, frog, eel . . . whatever. At which point the adult would lift its bill and restart the whole exercise, ceasing only when other nestlings had had a try and its gullet was empty. Nestlings in adjacent nests (sometimes only two or three feet away) staring into the middle distance all the while as if food meant nothing to them.

My favorite time of year was mid-August when hundreds of fledglings would fly to nearby ledges, gracefully pose for my photographs, then fly back to the nest to get fed. At first they hadn’t a clue what they were supposed to do once out of the nest, much less how to feed themselves. But in a few days they caught on and began wading in the shallows, feinting, then thrusting their bills toward small fish. Their maiden flights and landings tended to be awkward, but they learned by doing and quickly refined their skills, coordinating feet-wings-necks like their role models.

Everyone loved watching the herons. Binoculars lay on every windowsill facing the bay. But even when the colony left, there were still harbor seals, loons, mergansers, scaup, goldeneyes, hawks, and yes, eagles, hungrier perhaps, but magnificent nonetheless. I still see the occasional heron, particularly feeding on the flats at low tide. Retrieving a benthic thermometer last year, I was surrounded by five herons fishing in nearby eelgrass meadows, like old times.

2 Heron Nests



(Copyright © 2009)


On March 28th, a sunny day with no wind, I walked to the shore to see what I could see. Turkey vultures, that’s what I could see, ten of them circling overhead. I first saw such birds in the Carolinas in the 1940s, where it was claimed you could tell the difference between those over North Carolina and those over South Carolina. In the 1980s, turkey vultures appeared in Maine, and now they are regular migrants who come back every spring. These were the first I’d seen this year, so as far as my consciousness knew, they had arrived that very day. I watched them wheel in the sky, then soar on rocking wings toward the Bar Harbor hills.


Also according to my consciousness, harbor seals come back every year on April 1st—the date I’ve usually first seen them. And great blue herons arrive on the same date—when I’ve actually seen them fly into their colonial nesting site. Robins and hermit thrushes come in great flocks a little later in April. The point being that the spring thaw happens roughly the same time every year, and migrating birds ride the north-trending wave of warmth (and food) which follows the thaw.


The thaw and subsequent migrations are natural events, what I call real-world events. The survival of millions of birds depends on them every year. People may not pay much attention to them, but they are taking place all the same. I mention them here to provide a contrast with the world many humans inhabit which is a cultural world built on expectation of comfort, profit, and entertainment, three concepts which may be of natural origin at some point in the past, but have become culturally obese in modern times as excess flab we can’t do without.


To many Americans, shopping, money, and movies are more real than turkey vultures. More of us live in cities these days than live in rural areas. Relating firsthand to the living landscape of our planet has become distinctly old-fashioned. We’re now into the virtual landscape of the Internet—as if our lives depended on it and not the terrestrial model. As if we ourselves had traded in our flesh and blood for some trendy iBod version with a motherboard based on nanotechnology. The next time you get sick, just try calling Tech Support for an iHeart or iLung as good as the original equipment that failed from carelessness or abuse.


Our consciousness has not culturally evolved so much as been sidetracked by the glitz of the big city economy where all things and services are said to be available at all hours—at bargain prices or even for free. But that is the laser show staged to lure us in. We can’t believe everything we think we see. Our consciousness is being manipulated so others can make money by getting us to act out our fantasies by spending money on their behalf. The modern economy is no more trustworthy than the snake-oil version of yesteryear. Behind the curtain, the natural world is still working the levers as fast as it can to keep up with our hyped-up demands, but is falling behind. Healthy ecosystems and the species they support are increasingly on back order.


The laser show is falling about our ears as surely as the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. In this case the so-called terrorists are more apt to be U.S. citizens than Saudis. To a man or woman, practitioners of the American dream in victimizing their neighbors, feeding off their remains. Not a pretty picture, but there it is. Birth and death are still ultimate realities; in between, life has become a scam, a Ponzi scheme that seems reputable in the abstract, but falls apart when you learn the details of how it’s done.


The world we live in is built of percepts and concepts in our heads. Concepts are particularly dangerous because in themselves they are empty shells waiting to be filled with the content of our choice. That is how memory saves itself from having to find space for an infinite amount of concrete detail. It sketches the outline, and we color it in. We think we are seeing the real thing, but it’s only an illusion. That’s how conceptual consciousness works. We fill the sensory void with glitz we see with our own eyes—voilá, The Emerald City stands revealed! But only we can see it because we’ve collaborated in its construction.


I don’t have to list the failings of consciousness resulting from our gullibility. Nothing else has been in the news for almost a year now. The thing to remember is that it isn’t happening out there in the cubicles of finance so much as in the connections between neurons we’ve been making in our own brains. Our enthusiasm for living the dreams we have been sold makes us complicit in the collapse of the phony culture we have come to believe in. We are the culprits every bit as much as the celebrities named in the news. They made the offer of an easy life, our minds went along as if the come-on was good as gold.


The mystery is not how the mighty could have fallen, but how we came to view them as mighty in the first place. Something distracted us just long enough to divert our attention from what was really going on. We didn’t have sufficient foresight to insist on adequate regulation of financial institutions as they got bigger and more secretive. We didn’t hold our legislators responsible in their dealings with lobbyists. We let Team Bush fight its war against terrorism as if it were called for under the circumstances and not trumped up by men who lusted for war to entrench their own power. We simply forgot that the natural environment supports us in everything we do, and came to trust technology instead. When you take your eye off the ball, it’s sure to hit you right between the eyes.


What were we doing all that time? Watching reality TV, soaps, sports, pornography, celebrities, listening to talk shows and endless music. Being mindless by not paying attention to the details of real life. Which, behind all the glitz, will always be governed by natural processes we don’t fully understand. If we don’t know that by now, our education has failed to keep us abreast of the realest of realities.


We will learn nothing if we see the shock waves spreading around the Earth as a temporary crisis or catastrophe. They are a reality check on how well our cultural institutions are serving to keep within the effective tolerance of the natural-ecological-biological processes supporting all life on Earth. Now we see that we depend on those processes absolutely. Too, that we have let effective governance of our consciousness get away from us time after time. Consciousness is given us to help stay within the bounds set by our planetary home in the vastness of space.


Earth is telling us something loud and clear. If we chose to carry on not listening as we have for so long, we can’t continue to blame the likes of George Bush, Bernard Madoff, or other people’s greed for what is happening. Ask a turkey vulture who is responsible, or a cod, polar bear, or tropical forest—like us, they are all natural beings and know the true score. If we and our economy are not with them, we are against them. When we go against life, we go against ourselves. That is the message greed and global warming are making clear to us now.


The solution is not to bolster the humans-only economy but to get with Earth’s program, the program that has supported life on Earth for over three billion years. If we have let our consciousness fail us, that is because we haven’t been paying attention—as every wild creature knows it must to get through the day. This latest reality test shows how lax our vigilance has become.


We have outrun our genetic heritage and it’s time to pull back. The economy can’t do it for us, or government, or even the military or mighty technology. We are on our own now. If we don’t see that, we’re missing the point. As I’ve called out before in this blog: Consciousness, awake!