Tag Archives: herons

Autumn watch

Some fall days chilly melancholy sweeps in like the chill air following a cold front sweeping down from the north. That happened to me yesterday. By early afternoon I was feeling sorry for myself because it would be dark by six, instead of staying light until eight as it did just a couple of months ago. I knew that the best thing to do would be to go for a walk. The stiff cold northeast breeze that I encountered crossing the bridges from New Bedford to Fairhaven almost drove me back home, but I plodded on. When I got to the short stretch of beach at Fort Phoenix, that same wind blew some of the melancholy out of my head — that, and seeing a Great Blue Heron, its head hunched down in its shoulders, standing on a rock in the water and staring out to sea — but melancholy came rushing back in when I left the beach to walk through the neat gridwork of residential streets in that part of Fairhaven. Something about suburban streets can seem so gloomy. Each street with its neat houses looked pretty much like the last street, to the point where I wasn’t quite sure where I was, or where I was going; I had to find my way by keeping the sun over my left shoulder, as if I were walking in a trackless waste somewhere.

At last I made it to the bike trail, which follows the route of the old railroad grade. Following the bike trail, I walked through an old industrial area, with big open spaces, an old beat-up brick factory building, occasional pieces of heavy equipment to look at, a row of empty red Dumpsters lined up. After crossing a little side street, the trail passed through a swamp, with a few red maples still glorious with crimson leaves and silver maples thick with with yellow and green leaves. Asters growing together in a loose clump stood nearly six feet high, covered with the most amazingly purple flowers; their flowers stood out against the brilliant red leaves of a thick growth of poison ivy growing over shrubs and trees. The intensity of those colors, the purple flowers and the red leaves, drove most of the melancholy out of me. That, and getting out of the urban gridwork of streets. Immature White-crowned Sparrows flew to and fro in the tangle of brush on either side of the bike trail, chirping merrily to each other as they went.

I climbed up the old road to the top of the hurricane barrier, where the wind hit me again, and I looked out over the green-gold salt marsh hay, over the blue water of the bay, to the Elizabeth Islands shimmering in the late afternoon warmth. Then I turned and walked back, the setting sun in my eyes the whole way home.


Winter is when the memories seem to rise up unbidden, and winter is coming to an end. Even though I tend to stay up late, I keep getting awakened by the light of sunrise, now about 5:30 a.m. Springtime is overtaking memory.

But somehow, a memory of a sunrise slipped into consciousness just now….

One June, when we were living over by White Pond in Concord. Carol was away on one of her trips to Mexico; I was sleeping alone; I came wide awake before dawn. Say four o’clock. Couldn’t get to sleep, didn’t want to. Put the canoe on the car and drove down to the river.

Untied the canoe as the sky was just starting to turn light, paddled down river to Fairhaven Bay. I drifted into the bay as the sky started to turn from black to blue. Mist rising over the bay. I tried a few casts in the shallow, upstream end of the bay; nothing. In the downstream end of the bay, there’s a deeper hole, and there I hooked a big bass on light tackle and with barbless hooks; after maybe quarter of an hour I brought him to the boat, wet my hand, and held him while I released the hook then let him swim away to keep breeding. I turned around to see that the sun had just hit the top of the rising mist, about twenty feet above the river; an Osprey circled overhead in the sun, a far more efficient catcher of fish than a single human could ever be; a Great Blue Heron stalked smaller fish along the shore. I drifted in silence for a while. The sun crept up over the horizon: gold light in the mist; but as I paddled into the mist, it only appeared white.

The mist was gone by the time I reached the boat landing.

…a memory that doesn’t translate into words very well. A memory that dissipated as I tried to write it down. Something about a gut-level, direct knowledge of my place in the ecosystem, in the universe — but that’s putting it badly. It’s gone now.


Met dad at the Monsen Road unit of Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We brought binoculars and spent some time looking for birds, but we spent far more time talking.

The Refuge staff continue to tweak their management practices in Great Meadows. This year again, both the upper and the lower impoundments have almost no water in them.

The lower impoundment (northerly, or downstream relative to the Concord River) is substantially drier right now, with the only water visible being in the ditch that leads north from the central dike. Many of the familiar plants remain despite the lack of water. The surface of the water in the ditch is covered with duckweed; cattails continue to flourish along the central dike and the east and west sides of the lower impoundment; and some purple loosestrife continues to flourish even though the water levels have been managed at least in part to try to do away with this invasive exotic. More remarkable to me was what appeared to be quite a fair amount of wild rice plants. I am not secure enough in my identification abilities to be sure it is wild rice without actually tasting the grains when they are mature. Nevertheless, I don’t remember seeing this plant before at all in the lower impoundment, and it covers a good proportion of what used to be open water in the lower impoundment. Presumably when the impoundment is flooded again, the seeds of this plant will provide another food source for migratory waterfowl. In the mean time, the growth of the wild rice (or whatever it is) makes the area look far more like a meadow than a drained pool.

The upper impoundment still looks like a drained pool. The cattails fringing the central dike and the east and west borders, and the mass of cattails in the southern half (or upstream half relative to the Concord River) retain their familiar boundaries. A few scraggly loosestrife have sprung up in the middle of the open area, the now-dry pool. We could see the leaves of pond lilies far out in the middle of the open area, where there was still a sheen of water on the mudflats — along with scores of shorebirds and a flock of Cedar Waxwings just visible in the binoculars. I saw some water chestnut floating in the central ditch — an invasive pest on which the current water management practices seem to have made substantial impact. A Great Blue Heron stalked the margins of the central ditch, thus provingsome small fish still haunted its waters.

We walked up the dike between the river and the upper impoundment, towards Borden’s Ponds, and saw pond lilies in beautiful butter-yellow bloom in the mud flats of the impoundment. Along the river, we saw lots of cardinal flowers, now in their glory. Dad took a number of photographs of cardinal flowers, and of the Great Blue Heron when we were returning. To be honest, though, we didn’t spend much time looking at either plants or birds; mostly we had a good long talk.

On August 22, 1854, Henry Thoreau took a walk in Great Meadows. This was 3 days after Ticknor and Fields published his book Walden. He wrote in his journal:

Pm. to Great Meadows on foot along bank….

This was a prairial walk. I went along the river & meadows from the first–crossing the red bridge road to the Battle Ground…. There are 3 or 4 haymakers still at work in the great meadows–though but very few acres are left uncut. Was suprised to hear a phoebe’s pewet-pewee & see it. I perceive a dead mole in the path halfway down the meadow. At the lower end of these meadows–between the river & the firm land are a number of shallow muddy pools or pond holes where the yellow lily and pontederia–Lysimachia stricta–Ludwigia spaerocarpa &c. &c. grow where apparently the surface of the meadow was floated off some srping–& so a permanent pond hole was formed in which even in this dry season [there was a serious drought in the summer of 1854] there is considerable water left…. In one little muddy basin where there was hardly a quart of water caught hald a dozen little breams and pickerel only an inch long as perfectly distinct as full grown….

Saw a blue heron–(apparently a young bird–of a brownish blue) fly up from one of these pools–and a stake driver [bittern?] from another–& also saw their great tracks on the mud & the feathers they had shed. Some of the long narrow white neck feathers of the heron. The tracks of the heron were about six inches long.

Here was a rare chance for the herons to transfix the imprisoned fish. It is a wonder that any have escaped. I was surprised that any dead were left on the mud but I judge from what the book says that they do not touch dead fish. To these remote shallow & muddy pools–usually surrounded by reeds & sedge–far amid the wet meadows–to these then the blue heron resorts for its food.

This is a description of the results of landscape management in 1854, a century and a half ago. There were no dikes in Great Meadows then, and no attempt to provide open water as resting places for migratory waterfowl in spring and fall; instead the land was managed to produce hay for livestock. In 1854, there was no need to manage the landscape in order to minimize the incursions of invasive exotic plants such as purple loosestrife and water chestnut — those plants have only come to the Great Meadows in destructive numbers within the past thirty or forty years. The Great Blue Heron and the yellow pond lilies and the shallow pools filled with small fish remain constant.

And human beings continue to spend time in the Great Meadows. Dad and I didn’t see any hay makers, of course, but we passed four young people, summer employees of the Refuge, and their pickup truck on the central dike. One of them scanned the upper impoundment with binoculars while the other three talked, and today I found myself more in sympathy with the conversation than the observation.

Summer rhythms

The herons and egrets have been back for about a month now. Breeding season is over, and they have moved away from their rookeries. Last evening, I saw a Black-Crowned Night Heron at the edge of the water near Island Park. It still wore one of the long wispy white breeding plumes trailing back over its black head.

Island Park isn’t an island any more. In spite of the rain we had yesterday, the Fox River remains low. The water is so low, Island Park is connected by dry land under both the north bridge and the south bridge, leaving a long pool of water on the eastern side which is no longer connected to the main river.

A fair number of fish must be trapped in that long pool of water. Night before last, I stood on the north bridge to Island Park and watched a Great Egret fishing, a big showy white bird completely intent on the small fish darting about in the water at his or her feet — and completely oblivious to all the people sitting fifty feet away on the deck of the Mill Race Inn.

The fishing appears to be good on the main river, too. One afternoon, I saw five people spread out across the river, wading in water up to their knees, and fishing. A Great Blue Heron waded the river a little downstream from them, and it was fishing, too. Some human beings have the conceit that we are different from animals, but I don’t see it. Like every species, we have our peculiar adaptations that help us survive, but the capacity to manufacture tools like graphite fishing rods does not make us unique, any more than the Black Crowned Night Heron’s breeding plume makes it unique. It’s summer, and all the plants and animals are responding to the ongoing rhythm of the year in their various ways. It’s enough to say that.