Home to Roost

Home to Roost

“Ramshackle” is the word bird watcher Arthur Shippee uses to describe the nests of the great blue herons settling in his Hamden neighborhood. Since April of 2016, when Shippee first spotted one pair nesting on upper Lake Whitney, these once-rare giants with a six-foot wingspan and a gullet big enough to bring home a chipmunk have been arriving in greater numbers each spring to build their penthouse apartments of sticks and twigs. Within a few years of that first sighting, Shippee counted a dozen or so active nests located high in the pine trees bordering a small inlet off Waite Street. This year, the birds are back.

Eager birders are known to flock to the little Waite Street bridge on a causeway crossing the lake to peer up at the prominent treetop nests and watch the herons, alternately graceful and gawky, fly out and return with building materials and food. One evening toward sunset, we spotted several birds roosting in pairs at their nests. Another sat alone while still more perched on nearby branches. All stood hunched like heavy gray watchmen. Then, with a snapping rush of air, like the unfolding of a fan, one great bird raised its wings, leapt and flew a graceful, gliding circle around its tree. Then another took off. Reaching its long, elegant neck and pointing its slender legs like a ballet dancer, this great blue heron coasted low overhead, crossing the roadway and another narrow stretch of water to land in a far-off pine.

It took its time then trying to find the perfect twig to bring back to its mate, but the tree was reluctant. The bird grasped first one little branch, then another, in its strong beak. It strained back and beat its wings, but to no avail. With a heavy hop, it left one supple branch bouncing and tried another. For at least 10 minutes this went on as we watchers leaned against the bridge’s guardrail. All around us, red-winged blackbirds screeched. Finally, we heard a loud snap. Floundering, the heron lifted off with a perilously heavy stick in its beak. We held our breath as it fought its way back to its mate and their nest.

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In flight, the great blue herons are graceful in the way an air transport plane is graceful; you can hardly believe it stays aloft, yet it soars as smoothly as a glider on a calm day. But on short trips from one branch to another, the herons look more like teenage boys, their long legs dangling, their unruly wings flapping awkwardly as they try to lift off and land. The birds nest in mated pairs, and both male and female take turns doing everything, including sitting on the eggs and protecting their young, says Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society. Adults will fly miles to hunt. They’re predators with a “pretty varied diet: almost anything they can fit in their gullet,” he says. In addition to chipmunks, they’ll take fish, smaller birds, meadow voles and even snakes.

Chris Elphick of the Connecticut Bird Atlas says it used to be rare to sight a great blue heron, but in the last two decades they’ve been making a comeback in Connecticut and elsewhere. “Once you start to pay attention, you find out there are heron colonies in the swamps all over the state,” says Elphick, a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. “There are many more locations now than there were in the 1980s, and especially in the southern half of the state.”

The birds were first endangered in the early 20th century, when they were killed for the use of their feathers in hats and clothing. The pesticide DDT also may have played a role in their low numbers mid-century, Comins says. The Connecticut Bird Atlas doesn’t count individual birds, according to Elphick, but it does count the number of locations across the state where the herons and many other birds are found to be breeding. For this purpose, the atlas divides the state into a grid of 600 blocks. “A lot more of those have nesting in them now than they did back in the 1980s,” he says. “That could be one pair or 30 pairs… They’re more widespread, they’re nesting in more places, and there clearly more birds, but just how many more is hard to say.”

One nice thing about the great blue herons, Elphick says, is that they’re big enough to observe even without binoculars or a spotting scope. “As the young get bigger, you’ll see them sitting up in the nests,” he notes. One of his favorite great blue heron observations occurred a few summers ago, near the Danbury airport, when he watched heron after heron flying back into the swamp that was home to their nests. Following on their tails came a “really torrential rain,” he says. “They were clearly coming home to sit on the nest and protect their young during the rain.” About 20 minutes after skies cleared, the birds took off again to resume their hunting. “It was really dramatic and obvious what was going on,” Elphick says. “They’re a species that, once you get attuned to where they are and what they’re doing, it’s pretty easy to see these behaviors.”

On a morning trip to check on the Lake Whitney herons, the rookery was quiet. Several birds were hunkered down in their nests, presumably sitting on newly laid eggs. Gestation is 27 days, and each nest will hold up to four eggs, laid several days apart, Comins says. Seven to eight weeks after hatching, the young herons will fledge. The birds will be around all summer. “When it gets hot, you hear them canting and clattering,” Shippee says, adding that as long as there’s open water on the lake, one or two might overwinter. The others will eventually migrate, most of them to the southeastern United States, Comins says, though they can be found as far south as Mexico. He says it’s likely that the herons here now have nested here in the past.

Aside from the fact that visitors to Hamden’s herons should watch out for cars while standing on the narrow shoulder, people should keep some distance as this pandemic lingers. And it’s “probably not good to go looking in some stranger’s spotting scope or share binoculars,” Comins says, so it’s just as well that you don’t need a scope to meet these majestic birds. All that’s required is a little bit of time and patience—and knowing where to look.

Great Blue Herons on Lake Whitney
Waite Street Bridge, Hamden (map)

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. This updated story was originally published on April 16, 2020.

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