Confessions of a Rookery Collector

Great Blue Herons hold a special place for me. Long, sleek and grayish blue, with the dark crown angling back overhead, stalking the shallows ever the hunter. A spear-like beak that slices through both time and water, angling for a fish or frog; a portrait of animalistic stealth ­— a “water wolf” —  always on the ready. Although those that become urbanized become less shy, those in the wild have little tolerance for mankind, lifting from the river a hundred feet in front of a canoe, or lifting with sudden urge from a wetland or prairie stream to glide away, neck curbed with straightened legs, off to some realm of both safety and promise. 

Great Blues are part of my springtime wonder. They arrive early, weeks before color begins to soften the woodlands. Besides catching glimpses of the herons, this array of woodland colors of the buds of awakening trees, from the bright reds to the nearly full spectrum of greens, eases my soul. Adding peace. Adding joy. This leafing out is truly an acknowledgment that we’ve finally passed the rigors of a winter past and are now heading toward summer. This is all choreographed between bird and wood so wonderfully … until it isn’t.

Male Great Blue Herons bringing in the sticks the female will knit into the nests.

For on one of the bends of the Minnesota River below Skalbakken County Park, rather close to the confluence of Cottonwood Creek, the Great Blue Herons have adopted a piece of the wooded banks for a rookery that becomes completely hidden once the leaves of the trees appear between the rookery and the river. Besides being unfair to a hopeful canoer, there is something about a rookery that simply amazes me, and has for as long as I can remember. Could it be having a sneak peek into the inner secrets of an avarian slice of life?  

If the late counterculture poet and author Richard Brautigan could collect trout streams, then whose to say I can’t collect heron rookeries. His fly fishing pilgrimage through Idaho in the late 1960s isn’t unlike mine through the numerous crane rookeries through the years. Around our region of the prairie numerous birders make an annual pilgrimage to a rookery shared by cormorants and Great Egrets on a small island in “grotto” park near downtown Fergus Falls. Color me guilty, for I seem to make the 90 minute drive at least a few times each year especially in the spring during the collective nest building span of time. 

Beside the Fergus Falls and Cottonwood Creek rookery, that springtime canoers paddle past, another one exists about a mile or so below US 212 some miles south of Marieta surrounded by a stately oak savanna. This one, like many, is well hidden, and like many, basically the only time it’s visible is in the spring before leafing. Even then one if lucky to see it.

She awaits, as do I peeking in at their interesting society.

Over the years I’ve been drawn to other rookeries in other states. Perhaps the most notable one is the Snowy Egret rookery on Tabasco’s Avery Island near New Iberia, LA, where the McIlhenny family basically saved the egrets from extinction in the early 1900s thanks to a man-made rookery. At the time the birds were threatened due to the fashionable thirst for their fairy-like feathers. Avery Island is a magical place in the Cajun Triangle.

Another rookery I thoroughly love is within the town limits of Rockport, TX, a beautiful Great Blue Heron rookery that was pointed out to me by a local artist after I had admired one of her paintings in her front street studio. This heron community is adjacent to both the Gulf of Mexico and a brackish bay where the birds wade the waters with seemingly no concern of nearby human traffic either in vehicles or on foot. A naturalist friend tells of a well populated crane rookery in NE Minneapolis where the birds are also “tamed” by the proximity of humanity.

Not so at a rookery on a small lake in the Eastern South Dakota Coteau. A few years ago a friend and I discovered this beautiful island rookery between here and the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Like the Fergus Falls rookery, there isn’t any foliage blocking the view. Last week I ventured over after seeing a heron lift from Meadowbrook just down the road from Listening Stones Farm. This was a “they’re here!” moment of discovery, and since this rookery is about 90 minutes west between Sisseton and Sand Lake NWR, I took the drive. There the birds held me captive for nearly two hours … which is about normal. Their “secret society” feeling simply  grabs me.

The handoff …

And the rookery was alive with nesting activity. While females worked on arranging the sticks brought in by their mates high in the trees, the males flew off in search of more nest kindling, grasping mere sticks in their beaks before easing across the expanse of the lake. Amazingly, they would land on spindly branches before gingerly walking down to hand off the stick to its mate. 

Besides being mesmerized by the branch ballet, in the deft manner of not only landing on the end of a branch, and then balancing as the male eased toward his mate with the stick secured in its beak, there was the eased poetic flight over calm waters carrying sticks dogs would love. Sometimes both would work on the construction, although it seemed that moments after the hand off the male would again take flight to gather more sticks. In his absence, she would knit the stick into a maze that would become their nest. Interestingly, much like the rookery in Fergus Falls, sometimes a nearby cormorant would attempt to wrestle the stick away from the herons. Rarely were they successful.

Yes, their island rookery was shared by cormorants, who likewise were busy in next mending. Though like in Fergus Falls, I wasn’t there for the cormorants … birds that appear so old worldish with their strangely webbed feet and hooked bills that they appear to be from times’ past, as first cousins to prehistoric Pterosaurs. But, aren’t all birds? 

An overview of the rookery between Sisseton and Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

These nests they weave of random wood high in spindly trees, mostly now perished due to the buildup of guano from those that have adopted the highest most branches, are study and strong, surviving in this case, often harsh and strong prairie winds. 

In those nests she will lay three to seven greenish-blue eggs that will be incubated for about four weeks with the male and female taking turns. Chicks break through the shells with eyes open, and like all those Pterosaurous cousins, are completely dependent on their parents for sustenance – food that is regurgitated from small fish, frogs and other small animals ingested in their stomachs. Within two to three months the youngsters are ready to fly, and come late summer they will be smaller mirrors of their parents. Though less fearful of mankind, the young herons can be seen in waters near their rookery stalking the shallows with far less spookiness than their parents, a fear that will become more pronounced as they age. 

So life goes on, seasonally, and with balance and symmetry. Beautifully poetic, with their high branch ballet, and if you’re lucky you can witness all of this in a natural theatre often near water and in an early Spring before a leafing closes the curtain on this delicate and fearful society. Rookeries are rare treasures, and I for one am most happy to be a collector.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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