Thursday, May 30, 2013

Watching Wildlife: Herons Out, Lady’s Slippers In

Heron in a white pine tree.The story of my heron nest may have come to a premature ending for 2013. I think the nest has been abandoned.

I don’t know if it was the days and days of cold, hard rain or some other natural cause, but the nest in the dead tree appears to be empty. When I hiked in the first day the rain let up and the sun started to come out, I spotted a lone heron sitting in a tall white pine along the shore of the pond – but none in the nest. Prior to all this rain, I’d quietly watched the nest from several different vantage points and had been able to see just the head of a heron on the nest. Sometimes I sat and watched for an hour and the bird never moved – ever alert. Then I hiked in the day after Memorial Day and no herons were around at all. From what I’ve read, it is possible that a mated pair will lay a second batch of eggs if something happens to the first batch, so I guess there is still something to hope for – if they haven’t totally given up on this little pond.

To make matters worse, I’d spent time during those cold, rainy days watching the Cornell Ornithology Lab live web cam of a heron nest in Sapsucker Woods, near the Ithaca campus. I saw lightening in the sky, I saw the herons hunkered down in the nest, buffeted by howling winds and pelting rain, and I got to watch one of the adults feed the two-week old babies a half a fish!

I was busy working in my studio on a painting, with the heron web site playing in the background when I realized I was hearing the chattering sound the baby herons make when it’s feeding time. I recognized it from the video I was fortunate enough to have shot last year of a feeding session in “my” nest. So I stopped what I was doing, and started watching the computer screen. There are actually two cameras on the nest – one to the side and one directly above, so it’s possible to get dual views of the action.

While I believe the adult birds actually regurgitate fish and frogs they catch for the babies, I did not get to witness that lovely part of dinner. There are three baby herons in the Sapsucker Woods nest – two are much larger than the third one, and there are still two eggs in the nest which the adult birds gently turn and keep snug underneath them. So when the feeding noise got my attention and I turned to watch the computer screen, I saw the bottom half of a small fish deposited in front of the three babies. Perhaps a perch or sunfish.

A feeding frenzy began and one of the larger ones vigorously tugged at the fish, pulling it away from the other two. The smaller chick looks like the “runt of the litter”, but is probably just smaller because the eggs don’t all hatch at the same time – this young bird is literally younger than the other two. It had an A+ appetite however and soon had wrestled away the half-fish from the larger chick. He ferociously pecked at it, tore it out of the grasp on the larger baby, and seemed to be winning the battle until he tried to swallow it. It was too big to even fit in his mouth. The third baby, another large one, tried to get involved, but lacked aggressiveness – the little guy was clearly winning the battle, working hard to keep his trophy to himself and trying with all his might to swallow it. Then in a flash, almost as if the parent decided “enough of this”, the adult heron snatched up the remains of the half fish and swallowed it. Dinner was done. The parent carefully stepped around and maneuvered into place, and then gently lowered him/herself over the chicks. Nap time!

Pink Lady's SlippersThe wonders of technology seriously elevated my consciousness of the life of herons. I figured my northern Adirondack herons were likely three weeks behind their Ithaca cousins – so was hoping for eggs to hatch in early June. It doesn’t look like that will happen. I will continue to monitor the nest and see if the herons return to the pond.

Next on the agenda…. the Pink Lady’s Slippers are about to burst into full bloom, in spite of a couple of frosty nights! Watch for them in pine woods with sandy soil and on partially open rocky areas on the mountain sides. Silver Lake Mountain has a very healthy population on it’s short 1 mile trail – one year I found a clump of them that had 13 individual flowers in it.

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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

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