Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Art and Nature: Returning To the Heron Nest

Heron on nest, 2013If you’ve been reading the Adirondack Almanack for a while, you may recall my emotional writing about the heron nest I found in the spring of 2012, and the three charming youngsters that were about half-grown when nature intervened and they became dinner for some predator like a large owl or a bald eagle. I was devastated as I’d been quietly visiting the nest site for weeks, observing and photographing the heron family. You can see a YouTube video of one of the parents feeding the three youngsters here.

I’m happy to say, the herons are back on the nest. Or more accurately, according to what I’ve read, a male heron, perhaps the same one, returned to this nest site, made sure the nest was in tip-top shape, and then courted a female (who may not be the same one as last year) and convinced her to join him for mating season. I trust those close friends who know where this pond is will keep it quiet and not disturb this nesting pair.

The nest, near the outlet of this little pond near Paul Smiths, survived the winter and looked to be in good shape when I hiked in to check it on April 23. There was still ice on some sections of the pond and quite a bit of snow on the sheltered parts of the trail. I didn’t expect to see any herons, and I didn’t.

On May 8, I startled a heron hunting along the shoreline – and it flew directly up to the nest and just stood there. It had dark patches on it’s shoulders – I speculated it was the male, guarding his nest, watching out for a mate. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab website,  the male gathers sticks and branches and presents them to the female, who “weaves” them into a nest. The site also stated that the males return to the nesting area first – so I’d say it’s a pretty good guess that the bird I saw was the male. I have pictures from 2012 that I believe showed both adult birds and one of them seemed to have the dark shoulder patches and the other didn’t

On May 13, I quietly slipped down to my hidden viewing spot, peeked through the trees and spotted a heron down on the nest. All that could be seen was the head – ever alert. I suspected it was sitting on eggs.

May 17, friends who have become addicted to the Cornell Ornithology Lab Heron Nest web cam told me that the first heron egg had hatched there on May 15. I figure the northern Adirondacks are about 3 weeks behind the southern tier, based on when spring flowers bloom and leaves come out on the trees. The Cornell site reported that eggs were laid between March 26 and April 6. So maybe we are 4 weeks behind! If my herons laid eggs around May 10, they should hatch in about 4 weeks, or around June 7.

Heron painting

I’d been busy during the day on the 17th setting up an exhibit at the Paul Smith’s College VIC. The “Bird Art Invitational” consists of 41 works of art, that all focus on birds, by about 18 different area artists. It will be on display through the Great Adirondack Birding Festival, which begins May 31, and until June 7. One of my pieces in the show is a painting I did from photos I took of the young herons at this nest in 2012 – my homage to their lost lives.

I decided to hike in to the nest site after the opening reception for the exhibit, arriving at the pond at 7:30 pm. It was a very still, calm evening and I was enjoying what would probably be one of the last days that one could see so far into the woods, due to the lack of leaves and undergrowth. As usual, I was very observant, watching for movement or dark shapes in the woods, especially dark black shapes, because they could be a bear. I’d walked/jogged as fast as I could, knowing daylight was waning, but the sun was still above the horizon. Reaching the side trail to my viewing I spot, I tip-toed down the pine needle covered trail, watching the outlet stream from the pond intently. Sometimes the heron forages in the stream.

Suddenly something moved ahead of me – something large and black. I immediately stopped behind some young evergreens and studied what I could see through the trees. It had to be a bear! I took the lens cap off my camera and tried to get some photos, but quickly fogged up the viewfinder! Heart pounding, I looked over the top of the camera and clearly saw the bear stepping through the woods along the stream – the other side of the outlet stream. He had not seen me. I managed to get a few photos but the only one who will recognize a bear in the picture will be me as there were a lot of trees in the way. As I moved over one step and crouched down a little to get a better view, I clearly saw the lighter brown muzzle of the bear as it looked in my direction. I’m not the greatest judge of distance but I would say it was less than 50 feet from me. As I watched it moving along I all of a sudden realized it was crossing the beaver dam on the outlet stream and coming towards me! A couple more photos and I quietly stepped back behind the cover of more young balsams and then turned and walked away, having never been detected by the bear! With adrenalin pumping through my veins, all I could think was “holy #@!&”! What have I just experienced?

I can now verify that a black bear is truly the blackest thing you will ever see in the woods – almost a blue-black. Blacker than tree stumps; blacker than the shadows under fallen logs. How big was this bear? Big. Think of pictures you may have seen of circus or tame bears – large bodies, small heads – that’s what this bear looked like.

I never had a chance to check the heron nest that evening, but feel very special for having had the experience that I did. I’d encountered bears in the woods before, while hiking, and while they had never been this close, upon seeing me, they always turned and disappeared into the trees, as fast as possible.

May 21- I returned during broad daylight and found a heron sitting on the nest with just the head visible. I took more photos of the spot where I’d seen the bear, from the place where I was standing and will probably do a painting of it as a way of remembering my exciting experience. Creeping down the trail to my little hiding spot, which happens to be at the end of the beaver dam (yes, the one the bear was walking across), I discovered the pine branches I’d propped up against a fallen tree to partially block the heron’s view of me, had been moved. I guess the bear didn’t care if the herons saw him!

I don’t know if it’s because I’m an artist, or an amateur naturalist, or both, but I can’t help but be observant. I’ve been this way all my life – I notice things. I found a downy white feather on the trail last July on the day I walked in only to discover that the three young herons in this nest were no more. Here are a few of the other things I’ve observed at this pond over the years: beavers, mergansers, a pair of otters, a mink, places where a moose had stripped bark off a young red maple, deer drinking from the pond, coyote tracks, and today, two yucky, giant leeches in the shallow water in front of the beaver dam (note to self: never wade in the pond), a hairy woodpecker, and a large snapping turtle, pretty far from any water, most likely laying eggs in the sandy trail. Did you know they can hold their head up, turn it around and see behind themselves? Found that out when I tried to sneak up closer to take a photo.

Stay tuned, I will hopefully have more adventures to report on and artwork to create from hikes in to my secret heron nest.

Photos: Above, Heron on nest, 2013; below, Heron painting.

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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

2 Responses

  1. Brad says:

    Nice story about the bear…wonderful experience. Your passion and excitement came through the page quite clearly. And enjoyably. Sometimes the ‘little adventures’ are the most memorable and the most meaningful.

  2. Terry says:

    You are a great story teller, artist and photographer. Thanks for sharing this adventure. I can’t wait to hear how many babies are there this year.