Great Blue Herons are modern pterodactyls with wingspans of six and a half feet and a call that is harsh and prehistoric. Supreme predators of the waters’ edge, the ancient Celts believed them to be reincarnations of children who died young.
My small mountain lake hosted a heron rookery, and their presence could be seen on almost any day, stalking the shallows for sushi. But one morning, just before I needed to leave for work, I saw something that left me shaken and confounded in equal parts.
Herons are normally solitary hunters. It’s rare to see more than one at a time, but this morning I was witness to a spectacle. My lake front faced a cattail-covered peninsula that jutted out into the water a good fifty feet. At the tip of the peninsula was a partly sunken log, and as I watched, a juvenile heron awkwardly flapped his way out to the end of the log and balanced precariously there. On his heels came five more herons, each settling a little farther back on the dry land of the peninsula, and each perching in the same direction, facing junior’s tail feathers, the wind, and the lake.
And for all I could tell, they proceeded to settle in and watch the juvenile heron, patiently, as he seemed to gather his wits and his courage. I needed to leave for work, but this was such an event, I could not tear myself away. They waited, the bunch of them, all monitoring Junior as I held still and watched in awe.
The watch went on and on and eventually I dubbed members of the audience Mom, Dad, Uncle Harold, Aunt Josephine, and Cousin Mabel. Junior remained on his perch, tentatively raising his wings, bobbling a bit, re-positioning his feet and ducking his head, but each time he would settle back to parade rest.
Finally, Uncle Harold had had it. He launched himself into the wind and straight over Junior’s head, flapping those ponderous wings to gain altitude slowly, a process that lasted more than a hundred yards down the lake. Once he was high enough, he turned tail to the wind and came back toward the peninsula and my house, and high in the air he passed right over his family below. A few heartbeats later, Aunt Josephine followed his example, launching herself into the wind, following the same flight path while Junior watched and wobbled on his log. Sure enough, one at a time, each of the rest of the three copied the example laid before them, and soon all that was left was Junior, still wobbly and now completely alone.
Frustrated and a little frightened, he waited a bit longer, flexing and teetering, but clearly agitated now that everyone had left. Finally he hurled himself clumsily into the air, but instead of following all those good examples and flying into the wind for altitude, he turned abruptly away from the lake. Careening wildly, he tried for a 180 to follow his family’s last known direction.
But his skills with low altitude cornering were no more developed than he was. His flight path now took him straight at me and my two-story house.
The fifty feet he had to gain altitude was in no way enough to clear my roof. He was coming straight at me, flapping madly. Oh my God, he was clearly going to smash himself headlong into my house!
My hand flew to my face as I watched him hurtling straight toward a head on collision. At the last moment, I covered my eyes as I struggled to think: who was it again who served as an animal hospital for wild birds? Where were they? How could I find their number? I listened for the crash and thump, envisioning broken wings and a huge wild bird that would not appreciate my help…but I couldn’t hear anything, so I threw myself out the door and around the house.
But there was nothing, no sign of a collision. Somehow his clumsy flight had cleared all obstacles and he was on his way.