Friday, May 24, 2013

Nesting Green Herons! (Well, Almost....)

Let me start by saying that we don't have a drop of water on our property. You can't tell from the aereal photo below but we are on the south slope of a fairly steep hill, and it's very sandy and dry. We are in glacial moraine country here, and it's very sandy and hilly across the area, with lots of bottom-land marshes and ponds. Our house is a walk-out on the south side, and we actually have to walk UP five steps to get into our basement, while the back is at normal basement depth. The crest of the hill runs along the back line of our five acres. The property is a mix of mature pines and hardwoods, mostly black cherry, with some open meadows that we are trying to restore. All that, but no water.

Our five acres showing property boundary, heron nest location and nearby wetlands.

So I can assure you that it came as quite a surprise when we discovered a pair of green herons checking our place out. In the top right corner of our property, right below the nest site, we have a trail cam, pointed down a path that leads in from our neighbor's property. We have been dumping juicing pulp there for some time to draw the critters in.

I had gone out on the morning of May 2nd to replace the camera card, and heard rustlings in the pines overhead. I looked but didn't see anything. That same evening I went back out to pull a patch of garlic mustard that had appeared under an old apple tree that's right next to these pines. I heard more rustling but still didn't see anything. After a few minutes though I heard a raspy alarm call directly overhead and looked up in time to see two birds, clearly small herons, flying overhead. I ran back to the house to get my camera and tell Lori.

After searching phone apps and various websites we finally decided they were green herons. I was flaberghasted. This is a bird I have seen only twice, and here they were, checking out our property! I finally spotted one, up in a tree across our road, next to the gas pipeline easement that cuts through a marsh nearby.

Well I'll be! Green herons!

It's mate appeared and they both flew off down the easement. After waiting for what seemed like forever the pair finally flew by again, although I was of course by that time examining the bluebird houses. Lori saw them coming, though, and I managed to get a few shots, this being the best.

Flying back towards our property and the pine grove.

It took several days but I was finally able to find their nest, a small jumble of sticks out on a branch sticking into the space in the middle of this grove of pines about 15 feet above the ground. Knowing where to look I could just make her out, sillhoetted against the morning sky.

I see you up there!

We thought it a bit odd that they would nest so far from water, so we did a bit of research and found this, from

"Nesting: The green heron nests singly or in colonies. Although it generally prefers for its nesting locality a region close to the water, it may choose dry woods or an orchard in the midst of cultivated ground. The height of the nest is also very variable, and although most nests are placed from 10 to 20 feet from the ground, they may be found in the tops of high trees, or, on the other hand, on low bushes or even on the ground."

There are three old apple trees on this part of our property, one of which is very near, and the grove of pines is next to an open area on our neighbor's property, so I guess that explains it! 

We thought that we had lost them over Mother's Day weekend. Lisa and I were up in Tawas City birding, while Lori stayed home. Apparently our neighbor's to the north had a shoot-a-thon on Saturday, or were setting of fireworks, or both, most of the day and into the night. Sunday brought cold rain and wind, and Sunday night we had a hard freeze that damaged our oaks, walnuts, hickories, and the mulberry. Even the grape vines and sumac froze, and we will likely not see any fruit from any of these trees this year. 

Anyway, we checked on the nest Sunday night and Monday but didn't see any sign of the birds. But by Wednesday last week I thought I saw a dark shape back atop the nest, and tiptoed underneath to take a peek. Standing by the trail cam I could just make out a beak, smother and pointier than the sticks of the nest. Looking closer I could see her white-streaked breast and bulbous eyes looking down at me. Perhaps they hadn't laid eggs yet and were just now starting to nest, or perhaps she had never left and was so hunkered down we couldn't see her. In any case we were thrilled that it looked like we would have fuzzy baby herons to coo over.

I never got a shot of her from below--I really didn't want to disturb them.

We set up a spotting scope in a place where we could keep an eye on the nest but hopefully not disturb them. Through the scope I could see the colors of her head and her bright yellow eye, watching me as I watched her.
The problem, however, is that we had a bunch of critters habituated to coming to this very spot looking for goodies, including grey fox, opossum and racoons. We had stopped putting food out, of course, but I am sure they still came around, hopeful. 

This past Sunday night, sometime around midnight, we woke to a screeching ruckus somewhere nearby. Lori thought it was probably a rabbit meeting its demise, but when I checked on the nest Monday morning it was empty. I suspect racoons, which have been something of a menace around here lately, got at the herons. I looked for feathers or eggshells but found neither, so I have no way of knowing if she was on eggs or not. I assume she got away unscathed. I've been checking daily since then but the herons have not returned. Probably they've gone to look for a quieter neighborhood.

Empty nest, just a dark jumble of sticks in the branches of the pine tree.

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