Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

"Dad" the Great Blue Heron

"Dad" the Cornell Great Blue Heron

One year ago today, on May 3, 2015, I went birding in Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY, hoping to reconnect with someone very dear to me. He’d never once sent me an email or text, and I didn’t know if he’d show up while I was there, but hope springs eternal. Cornell University has a lot of prominent, world-famous professors and researchers, but the guy I so yearned to see wasn’t among them. He was an unemployed yet self-sufficient, hard-working recluse—the quintessential outdoors guy, into fishing and woodworking and building, yet surprisingly tender and patient with young ones. He was a true blue, all-American Great Blue Heron.

Sapsucker Woods has almost certainly been home to Great Blue Herons since the ponds formed. My personal experience with them there began with the first time I ever visited the Cornell Lab, in April 2006. During the time I was living in Ithaca while I worked at the Lab, from January 2008 through April 2010, Great Blue Herons could be seen every time I took a walk around the pond. My first spring in Ithaca, I thought one heron seemed unusually calm and tolerant of my presence, but figured that was just Cornell karma.

Great Blue Heron and fish

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron


In 2009, I got my first DSLR camera, and that’s when I started taking hundreds, and then thousands, of heron photos. That was also the spring that a pair of Great Blue Herons constructed a nest in the pond. Every day I took photos of the growing family—they successfully raised 4 babies that year.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron and chick

Great Blue Heron family

Great Blue Heron family

I was at the Lab during a major thunderstorm when the chicks were still little (but didn't bring my camera that day—it was raining). The female hunkered down on the nest. The male stood up at the edge of the nest, facing the full brunt of the storm with his wings slightly opened to umbrella his mate and young, and held fast, buffeted by powerful winds, pelted by rain and some hail, for the duration.

I left Cornell in April 2010, but not before a pair of herons arrived at the nest again.

Great Blue Heron

That was the spring Kevin McGowan noticed something unusual about the male at the nest: he was missing the hind toe on his right foot. I started scrutinizing my photos and, sure enough, the male who built the nest the previous year was missing his hind toe. And that unusually tame Great Blue Heron I’d taken so many photos of in 2009? He was the exact same individual bird! I started thinking of him as “Dad.”

I was gone through the nesting season in 2010 and 2011, but people at the Lab watched Dad and his mate—there was no way of knowing whether she was the same one or not—successfully fledge four chicks both years. Then in the winter in 2012, long before any herons returned, Cornell put a couple of cameras in the nest—nest cams that would stream live on the internet so we could watch the birds raise their family up close and personal. I was asked to be a monitor in the chat room. And though I was 1200 miles away, this was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had watching individual birds.

Great Blue Heron

That year they produced five eggs, and despite a few attacks by a Great Horned Owl leading to one egg getting cracked, a late winter storm, and other tricky situations, all five hatched, and all five successfully fledged.

Great Blue Heron brood patch

Great Blue Heron after owl attack

Nesting Great Blue Herons in snowstorm

Great Blue Heron in rain

Great Blue Heron feeding chicks

In 2013, the female appeared to be a new one, but Dad, missing that right hind toe, was back and the pair again produced four eggs and raised the four chicks to fledging. The nest fell out of the tree in 2014 before egg-laying began.

Then last year late in the season, Dad got into a fight with another heron, and his foot got hurt—one front toe was badly broken. He hobbled about at first, but the toe seemed to be healing.

Banded Great Blue Herons in Texas have survived 23 and 24 years. I don’t know if Dad's being attacked and injured was evidence of advancing age—we have no idea how old he actually was. But this year, for the first year since at least 2009, Dad has not returned to Sapsucker Woods. We don't know for certain that he's dead, and unless his death had been witnessed or his body retrieved, we could never be sure about the date or time of his demise. Few wild birds get obituaries.

It’s hard to tell individual birds apart—that’s the whole reason scientists mark them with leg bands, wing tags, and electronic trackers—and it’s hard to place a value on an individual bird. Dad produced at least 21 fledgling herons over his lifetime, making a genetic mark on his species. He also inspired a lot of human beings, who will never forget how he stayed on that nest through a snow storm; how he tenderly nurtured his chicks, always making sure to deposit the food in the nest nearest to the littlest chick; how when he regurgitated a still-alive goldfish in the nest to the utter shock of the babies, he patiently showed them that even though it moved—something no regurgitated fish had ever done in their experience—it was still food; how he was a constant presence in Sapsucker Woods, not shying away from people but always certain of himself and his absolute right to a love, his nest and territory, and good food.

I learned to love Great Blue Herons more as I came to know this one individual better. The last few years, the moment there was even a slight break in wintry weather in February I started impatiently awaiting news  that Dad had reappeared, each year breathing a sign of relief as soon as someone reported seeing him. I treasure my memories of the time I spent with him last May 3, all the time I spent with him in person during my years at Cornell, and all the time I spent watching him via Cornell's nest cam, not in person but somehow even more intimately. Now there is a gaping hole in my universe—a dark and empty void that, like Rachel's children, cannot be restored.

The world will go on without Dad, as it will one day go on without me. But I’m grateful that his and my paths intersected during our finite stays on this little planet. For the rest of my life, whenever I see any Great Blue Heron, I’ll think of one in particular, and smile.

Great Blue Heron nest cam

21 comments :

  1. Fabulous telling of the GBH story, Laura! Beautifully written, bringing a tear to my eyes.
    I am going to share this with some friends I have talked about the Heron nestcam to so they may have more of an understanding of how "Dad" connected with so many people the world over.
    Great photos too!
    Thanks so much for this lovely work! - (Ozbuglady)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Absolutely incredible story, so elegantly written. Without the GBH nest and Dad in 2013 season and the support of the chatters that so lovingly watched, laughing and crying with me, I know that I would not have made it through that year.

    Hearing that he did not return this year brings tears to my eyes as I know that his magic is what somehow brought all of us together as we watched him raise his family. If he has pasted, he is up there watching his offspring and will be missed.

    Thank you Laura for this incredible memorial to the best friend we could have, "Dad" Great Blue Heron.

    God Bless, June AngelJeff Jones

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm heartbroken that Dad has not returned this year. I hope he's still out there, being Dad.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Aw! That 2012 cam year was my first one seeing Dad. I think you for all the knowledge you shared with us on the cam chat and for igniting in so many, the fire of caring fro these beautiful birds. I was eagerly awaiting for news of Dad, too. Oh well, the world is a much better place since meeting the people in the Cornell Heron Chatters community. We will certainly miss Dad Heron, but he lives on in his army of offspring. "Fiver" is everywhere.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm grateful to you for your observations and photographs of "Dad", a wild heron who still means so much to so many. Always, but especially in that first year, the images and background you offered opened a door of understanding that would not have happened without your time and enthusiasm. Now herons are my "thing" as they are for many of the cam watchers and chatters. This awareness and joy is part of Dad's heritage.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Maybe others will write of their experiences with Dad, but these are some of mine- I was so lucky in that from the moment the heron cam opened to the public I switched from the hawk cam and never looked back. I am more than lucky in living 12 miles from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That first year I haunted Sapsucker Woods and was able to follow the herons not only on the cam but in person as well and especially, was able to share my experiences with our on-line heron community as I reported to moderators on the heron chat. And so I came to love Dad and his family. Last summer (2015) I was at the pond a lot keeping track of him as he came back to the pond from a nest he must have had somewhere else. And then he was injured and because of that I spent even more time at the pond watching him adjust his fishing to his new injury and watching him grow stronger. It was so hard to see him as he must have been suffering .But the pond - his pond- provided the perfect place for him to recuperate. Because he didn't mind people near him I was able to see him close up almost every time I went. He became better , he didn't limp as much and he was able to return to a more heron-like fishing style. And then in October he left. We all knew, as in other years he might not show up again in the spring, but this year we had a special hope that he would reappear in 2016. He has not. So we are left not knowing what happened- and left with a heron shaped hole In our hearts

    ReplyDelete
  7. Love love LOVE. Thank you, Laura, for a beautiful and lovingly written tribute to our beloved "Dad." You could not have expressed our sentiments better. With love and admiration from one of the original Heron Cam Chatters that first year, Gofishie. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

    ReplyDelete
  8. so touching!.... I never got to watch with you all as the nest fell down that year.... but your love and the love of all those who watched Dad raise his families has become an energy of it's own.... nurturing and healing.... with her <3 and love.... thanks so much for this wonderful story...... No one really knows where Dad is... personally I think he will show up some year, somewhere, likely Sapsucker..... meanwhile he lives on in lots of human <3s

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thanks so much for this eloquent and heartfelt story of 'Dad' Laura... I regret that I didn't join in until the year the nest fell down and he and his lady chose another spot... but I've seen the videos and heard the stories..... watched him hunt... and from a distance he has become Dad to me, too.... Getting to know his fans has been a wonderful experience. In addition to all those babies, he drew together a remarkable group of people who have healing and heart and kindness in common.... Your words bring the feelings to my heart.... I would rather not count Dad out of this world yet.... he may have been needed somewhere... but there still may be a day he shows up at the pond again..... but even if he doesn't... his legacy will hopefully go on forever..... <3

    ReplyDelete
  10. Thank you so much for your thoughtful blog on "Dad" and the many photos you posted. As you may know, he's probably my favorite subject to paint. What few people know, however, is that when I started sketching and painting him during the first camera year, a dramatic change occurred in my life as an artist. Suddenly, BEING a full time artist, putting painting FIRST when I woke up every morning, became the driving force - I was firmly kicked into high gear!

    He had inadvertently, miraculously opened the door of self-confidence within me, which more importantly, initiated self-actualization of the artist I was always meant to be.

    I owe much of my growing success as an artist to "Dad" - he's endlessly inspiring! And I owe the CLO, the heron "chatters" and you. I learned a lot from your comments...I was a "lurker"...so that I could draw the nest and its inhabitants at the same time.

    I am now painting more than just Dad, obviously, but he will always inspire me to create good and loving art.

    Thank you, Laura

    ReplyDelete
  11. Dad will always be with me in my heart and soul. I love that Heron and what he has brought into my life: my dear Heron Cam Chatter friends.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eric- We have certainly been blessed with fowl and human friends though this most unusual experience, <3

      Delete
  12. 2012, a year to remember. It changed my life. Thank you, Laura, for this exquisite tribute to Dadders. We will remember him always. <3

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you Laura for putting into words what I also have felt about Dad. I have been lurking since 2012 and so appreciate all you and the other mods and chatters have shared of yourselves and your respect for these beautiful birds. Dad will live on in my heart always.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Such a wonderful tribute, Laura. Even 3,000 miles away, I would take a break from my work as a children's book author to watch Dad and his mate raise their young. It was an extraordinary experience. Seeing his devotion and tenderness to his family made a lasting impression on me and I will never look at birds, or life, in quite the same way again.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Laura, thank you for writing such a wonderful tribute to "Dad," and the Heron Experience. It was heartwarming, and perhaps heartbreaking. We can always hope. ❤️

    ReplyDelete
  16. I didn't know anything about Dad until I read your post. I just wanted to let you know how touched I was by this story and how much I look forward to getting your email updates. Thank you for the time and effort you put into your posts. I wish I would've been in on the heron cam; I'm sure I would have enjoyed it. (I cannot get the commenting system to let me choose a profile so my name shows up! Debbra Brouillette)

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thank you, Laura. You’ve been a perfect guide for us and teacher of all things GBH. It is fitting you should apprise us of Dad’s absence and all that might mean. This heron, Dad , demonstrated to thousands the world over that fierceness, intelligence, grace, strength, courage, devotion, patience, compassion, persistence, striving, building, nurturing, teaching, overcoming injury, adversity and handicaps are all heron attributes. Dad was a stellar ambassador of his kind. He inspired all of us… the young and old and the best and the brilliant of us. He showed people all over the world how magnificent a Great Blue Heron could be. Dad is a gift... is and always will be a gift. He made non-birders into birders and strangers into friends. I met Dad in 2012 on the Cornell Nest Cams and in person when the friends Dad brought together into a community travelled from all parts to meet one another at his home on Sapsucker Pond. It was very exciting to see Dad in his element…and he seemed unbothered by our attentions. It is a wondrous thing, the associations, friendships, science, art and literature Dad fostered by his nature and his beauty. I will regard every heron I ever see with respect because of Dad. I think it is not overstating it to say, Dad is in my heart...his spirit is part of me. I think he is part of all of us who witnessed his splendid life at Sapsucker...and so wherever this extraordinary being is apart from us, he is also wherever any of us who had the honor to glimpse his world may be. Farewell in your travels Dad, I hope we meet again…

    ReplyDelete
  18. Laura, thank you so much for your beautiful, eloquent words about Dad. Dad and the nest at Sapsucker Woods Pond, were the beginning of a love that has brought such magic into my life. Even though I haven't seen Dad this year, when I'm doing "Cam Ops" and run across a young GBH, such as today, I wonder if it could be one of Dad's offspring, returning "home" to Sapsucker Woods Pond to eventually build his own nest. I've learned so much from Dad ... and I thrive on the people I've "met" through the Chat Room.
    Life is still beautiful on Sapsucker Woods Pond ... Dad began a legacy that will live on, long after he has gone from this earth.
    Thank you, again, for your inspiring words.

    ReplyDelete