Since early April, I've been sticking my beak daily into a great blue heron nest camera set up and monitored by the Cornell Ornithology Lab in Ithaca, New York. For several cold weeks in April, I watched as a pair of great blue herons lay five eggs and brooded them in all sorts of inclement weathers. One morning, I tuned in to find mom hunkered down in a bowl of snow, the nest buried, the temperature, 27 degrees. I worried about her all day, so much that I kept the classroom computer tuned to the cam. Late in April, the eggs began to hatch in the order they were laid. The last egg, Number 5, pipped out on May 2nd.
In addition to freezing temperatures, nights of snow and days of cold rain, the heron couple have had to defend their nest against multiple midnight owl attacks. Mom lost some head feathers during one attack, and an egg was dented during another, but hatched. So far, no chicks have been harmed.
In the early morning, the woods and pond below the nest are filled with bird song. The night sounds are all peepers and bull frogs. Two cams are trained on the nest: one is stationary, and gives a close-up side view of the chicks, the other cam is overhead, and can be manipulated. At various points during the day, a lab monitor focuses the second cam on the parents as they fish, bathe, and gather fresh nesting sticks in the pond and woods below. Sometimes this cam is focused on the parent heron as they stand guard on a branch over the nest. I am undone by the dignity and beauty of this, of their natural equanimity and patience.
Not long after the chicks hatched, I began taking screen shots on my computer and drawing from them. It’s been fun watching how fast the chicks grow, onscreen and in my sketches. They began life appearing as punk mohawked bobble-heads. Now they look like small adult herons, even though they have not yet learned to fly or catch fish. Their parents urp up fish for them, the urp stimulated by the chicks yanking on the parent’s bill, a kind of noisy clacking theater when all five grab at once. They sleep in a sweet snuggled pile, using one another as pillows, dreaming of what, I wonder.
The world might be a much nicer place if we played by bird rules: take only what is needed, delight in unexpected opportunity, sing in the morning, preen, be fierce when necessary, know our place in nature, dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to caring for our young, and when it is time to go, leave without a trace.