Monday, July 16, 2012

Sandy Hildreth: The Cruel Art of Nature

Great Blue Heron NestI am an artist who, like many others in our world, am inspired by the natural environment around me. In most cases it is the beauty of a place, or the subtle, interesting colors of some rocks, the freeform shape of a brook twisting through a beaver meadow, or sun glistening on a mountain summit. All pretty positive, attractive, peaceful images – the harmony of the natural world.

In a place like the Adirondacks, there are a lot of artists, writers, musicians, and more who gain inspiration from the world around them.

Well, that natural world threw me for a loop this past week, broke my heart and stunned me into feeling obsessed about creating a painting about it. On the surface the painting may end up appearing to be one of those harmony of the natural world images – but I (and you, if you see it) will know the horrible truth!

It all began on April 27 of this year at a small, undisclosed pond in the northern Adirondacks. It’s a place not far from home where I frequently hike and ski and that I’ve come to know quite intimately. There was still snow in the woods, but the pond was open water and it was a mild spring day. The Trailing Arbutus were in abundant bloom. Hiking in and wandering to some of my favorite locations on the trail, I noticed something different. There was a dead tree standing in the shallow end of the pond, not far from the outlet where there was an old beaver dam. There was a large nest of twigs piled up in the tree about 20 feet above the water level. I didn’t remember seeing that before and made a mental note to check photos of that particular view from prior years. I briefly glimpsed a Great Blue Heron stalking along the boggy shoreline.

After getting home, I Googled “nest in dead tree”, clicked on “images”, and immediately saw a picture in the grid of images that appeared that looked exactly like what I’d seen – only this photo had a heron standing on the edge of the nest of twigs in the dead tree. Upon doing further research I was a little puzzled because it said herons often nested in groups, making a rookery by building their nests in neighboring trees. This was a single lone nest and I’d seen a heron in the vicinity – chances were good it was a heron nest.

This had also been the same day I’d walked along the shore of the pond, spotted an odd colored rock that looked out of place, continued on and then my inner voice said “go back and look at that” and I scrambled down a steep bank to discover a gigantic mussel or fresh water clam shell. Both halves, still hinged together, but clearly had been scratched or bitten and pried open. I measured it when I got home and it was a full eight inches wide! Researching that I discovered it was indeed very unusually large. Looking back through my own digital image files, I found no photo of that view from 2011, but there was one from 2010 that included that same dead tree – no nest in it.

So April 27 was a really positive day. And I almost forgot – I saw bear tracks in the light dusting of snow on the trail too that day. It looked like someone wearing big fuzzy slippers, with 4 feet, had walked across the trail, leaving large indentations in the still dead ferns on the forest floor.

I didn’t get back to the pond again until May 26. Upon approaching the outlet of the pond I stepped quietly along the trail, then took an even fainter game trail into the woods and to a fallen tree at the waters edge. I sat behind the long dead massive white pine and watched the nest. It wasn’t long and I was rewarded with the flap of large wings and an adult heron descended on the nest. He/she stepped around, circled it, then those long spindly legs bent and I saw the bird wiggle it’s bottom as it lowered itself down. It had to be sitting on eggs! Oh boy! I left without disturbing it.

June 11 I went back and again saw an adult heron wiggle into the nest. It flew off at one point, then I heard that familiar swoosh of wings, a raspy croak, and it flew across the pond and landed in one of the big white pines. Quiet, then swoosh, swoosh and it flew past the nest tree and landed in a nearby pine. Not long after that it glided in and wiggled down into the nest. Peace and tranquility! Then a deep “ker-PLUNK” – a beaver gave the tail splash alarm. Somebody spotted me!

After catching some images of the brown head gliding through the water, I left. I have a nice Canon Power-Shot with a 35X zoom that can be quadrupled (though that makes grainy images) and when I downloaded my photos that evening I made another discovery – it was clearly two different adult herons that had sat on the nest! One had a dark spot on it’s left shoulder and the other a reddish brown patch there. Maybe one had been injured! Mom and Dad…. The pink lady’s slippers were in bloom.

Great Blue Heron babies

Life gets busy and I didn’t get back to check on my heron family until the 4th of July. As usual, I had the pond to myself and I quietly slipped into my hiding spot, wearing a dark green long-sleeved shirt to help camouflage me, and I stuck a fern frond into my ponytail to distract the swarming deer flies from my head.

The nest was empty and quiet, but it wasn’t long before a parent swooped in and stood on the edge of the nest. Instantly three shapes with fuzzy heads and long beaks popped up and began making this loud clicking sound! We had babies! My zoom lens brought me up close and personal to this lovely family.

Three awkward little herons, with heads that seemed too big for their bodies, staggered around begging for food. Their dark crest feathers were fluffed into disarray that reminded me of teenagers just getting up at 11 am after a crazy pool party the night before. I switched to video and shot about 30 seconds of this fantastic family scene. The noisy youngsters grabbed at the adult’s beak with their own beaks until finally it looked like he/she might have regurgitated something up and into the nest and they ate it. Then suddenly the adult flapped those giant wings and it lifted off the nest and appeared to fly directly towards me – only it cruised down and landed on the beaver dam not 50 feet to my left.

I was screened by a lot of tree branches, but I could see it move out of my peripheral vision. The 3 youngsters bumped around into each other desperately looking for the parent – probably still hungry. I snapped a few more photos of them and when I slowly turned to look for the adult, it was gone. Eventually the babies settled down – disappearing below the rim of the nest. Within the hour the parent returned and I watched the drama again. And yes, upon examining my digital photos and enlarging them, I could tell it had been 2 different adult birds.

I hiked out to my car, heading back to town for an outdoor concert and fireworks, absolutely basking in the joy of what I had witnessed. Life is good – I’d been blessed with a great opportunity and I was inspired. Would I do a large oil or watercolor of the heron nest? John James Audubon had painted a life-size Great Blue Heron in the 1830’s and had to gracefully bend it’s neck down in order to fit the bird on the paper. Should I do one with the adult on the nest, or just the 3 youngsters? Larry, Mo and Curly… Posted pictures on Facebook. Put a video clip on YouTube. Shared it with friends. It was a great 4th of July!

I returned on July 8 and as I sneaked through the woods to get to my viewing area, I spotted 2 feathers on the dry, orange pine needles that formed a thick layer on the forest floor. One was a pure white fluffy down feather about eight inches long with a graceful curve at the end. The other about a six inches long, standard type feather – a dark gray on the bottom half and a pale blue/grey on the top half. It was an ominous sign. The nest was quiet.

In perhaps 15 minutes an adult bird flew to it. There was nothing in it. It stalked around the rim, pecked at something in the nest, turned around, looked off to the left and the right, paused again then flew to a nearby tree that was out of sight. I could hear it in the branches. Every once in awhile it let out a forlorn croak.

I was devastated. What could have happened? I hoped against hope that the young herons had merely fled the nest – but deep down I knew they were too young to fly. Hopes and dreams were dashed. Those had been “my babies” – had they fallen out of the nest and drowned? Had some predator attacked?

While trying to make some kind of sense out of what happened, I caught sight of some movement across the narrow outlet of the pond – a small black shape moved through the ferns. Please, do not let it be a bear cub – I did not want an encounter with a mama bear. Catching it in the zoom lens I was delightfully surprised to see it appeared to be a mink. Then it disappeared and all was quiet again – except for that helpless, raucous croak and the sound of my heart breaking. I spotted the head of the beaver this time before it ever saw me and sat in silence. I stayed three and a half hours, hoping there was some mistake, then slowly walked back out to my car in the twilight.

I emailed my story, with the URL for my video, to the Cornell Ornithology Lab – hoping they might be able to somehow explain and ease my grief. Probably a bald eagle grabbed them – that was my answer. I’d never seen an eagle on this pond, but they were in the area at a larger, nearby lake. It was confirmed, from the video, that my babies had been too young to fledge and leave the nest. If they had, they’d be hanging out in nearby trees or on the ground and the adults would still sometimes feed them. I received an additional response to my questions the next day.

Returning to the pond on July 9, I was determined to move to a different view point where I could look across the pond into the trees where I’d heard the forlorn adult the previous day. All was quiet – nobody home. Sitting in the shade under a big white pine, I was perhaps 10 feet from the edge of the pond. The nest tree was at least 200 yards away. Suddenly, a swooping flash of reddish brown, a splash, wings flew off and right in front of me, floating in the water, was a dead duck, belly up.

Something had just zoomed into my field of vision from the right, fumbled with it’s catch not a foot above the surface of the water, and clumsily dropped it. The motionless white belly drifted with the breeze. I focused it in the 35X zoom and could see a black webbed foot, no head. I kept the camera focused on the shape in case the marauder returned to get it, but nothing happened. It had definitely been a large bird and it must have picked the hapless duck off the water unseen to my right. The reddish brown flash I’d seen had registered in my brain as “hawk-shaped” – not owl, nor heron. The dead duck was clearly an adult – maybe a loon. Maybe a merganser – I’d seen a family on the pond while heron nest watching. I’ll have to investigate what color their feet are. Had the duck been too heavy and the killer lost it’s grip? Was this the predator that had plucked my babies from the heron nest?

I am now really inspired to paint my story, even though I may never really know the truth. Nature had been cruel to me, cruel to Mom and Dad heron. Somebody had eaten my babies! I won’t be trying to portray that, but I will somehow put my grief into my painting. It may not be visible to the viewer – it might look like another “harmony of the natural world” painting. I’ll know. The fairy tale did not end happily ever after – just gone forever more. Predator won over prey and eat or be eaten will become the theme. The beauty of the natural world is in truth quite brutal. I’m going to make a painting that is but a brief moment in the truth of nature, with an unheard raucous croak in the background. Using modern technology to digitally examine my last photos from the pond I make one last discovery. It was not a black webbed foot I’d seen floating lifeless alongside the dead duck – it was a bluish grey foot and I could see three long toes….

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Sandra Hildreth

Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting.

Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

Sandy’s work can be seen on her website

8 Responses

  1. Jennifer Potter Hayes says:

    Last spring, I watched a family of Great Blue Herons on the live webcam through the Cornell Ornithology Lab as Sapsucker woods. 5 eggs, 5 chicks, 5 fledged. A very happy story despite several owl attacks.

    Sandra reminds us that nature can strike cruel blows, all part of the natural cycle.

    Hawk, eagle, owl…..? We’ll never know, but some bird or critter had a good meal at Sandra’s nest.

  2. Betty Bird says:

    Sad ending, but what a great video of the young. Thanks so much for sharing this story.

  3. Tom Boothe says:

    Great story, Sandy. It’s hard to see this stuff. We saw a bald eagle take a loon chick on Osgood a couple years ago. Flew right down and took it, with the mother not far off. Pretty heartbreaking. But, as you say, it’s Nature.

  4. Paul says:

    For the predator this is not cruel but a god send.

  5. dave says:

    Nature can indeed be brutal, and cruel. Experiences like this always remind me to do the following:

    – Enjoy and cherish the heck out of the beautiful and peaceful experiences in nature

    – Continue to strive to reduce cruelty in my own life

    Sandra, thanks for the reminder, and for a great – albeit sad – story.

  6. Gary Randorf says:

    Nature can be cruel all right, but nothing can be as cruel as human beings that kill for pleasure, or kill other human beings solely because they are of different color,creed, religion, sexual persuasion, or they do not act or think the same. Intolerance is often the reason for human misbehavior. The cure is simple enough–tolerance.

  7. Sandra Hildreth Sandra says:

    I know, I put too much human emotion into this story – but I was so hurt by what I’d witnessed. However, it was really just nature – not so much cruel as just real. Eat or be eaten. Thanks for the comments.

  8. jeanne baker says:

    Hi Sandra, Just read your story about your baby Herons. I felt so bad for them and mom and dad. I wanted to tell you about mine. In the past couple of years we have had a very small rookery in the woods out back of our place(on the edge of a field)with ponds close but not next to. Three nests this year, 5 in one 2 in each of the others. I pull up my lawn chair, tripod, and camcorder and water bottle and enjoy the day watching them. From tiny heads heads popping up to squack at mom and dad for food to big beautiful Herons waiting to leave for their own world, it has been a wonderful spring and summer. The April snow storm had me worried sick about them but mom kepy them warm and safe while dad brought food and “bonding” nest sticks to her. Then weeks later when the youngsters were bigger a terrible wind storm nearly took out top of the tree sending it almost verticle at times. Again mom hunkered down on top of them and they made it through. If I wasn’t grey already I certaintly would have turned grey that day! In the end the 5 all made it along with the other 4, the two last ones leaving just a few days ago. I am so sorry that yours didn’t make it because you certainly missed out on a great time watching them. My trees are empty now but the swamp at the end of Seneca Lake sure is FULL!!!!! Check next spring maybe with luck yours will be back to your tree!