In late March of this year, I was delighted to receive an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology saying that they had installed a camera at a Great Blue Heron nest.
By Katie Boord
In late March of this year, I was
delighted to receive an email from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology saying that
they had installed a camera at a Great Blue Heron nest, and that the camera was
now streaming live on their website, All About Birds. My
delight was boosted by a great view of the herons when I saw the camera. It was
boosted even further as I observed the herons gathering sticks for their nest,
courting, mating, and finally laying eggs, hatching them, and raising the
Apparently the herons have been
nesting at the Cornell Lab for the past three years, since 2009. They are
nesting right next to the Lab’s Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, in
the middle of a large pond. Theirs is the first recorded nest in the history of
Sapsucker Woods, where the Cornell Lab is located in Ithaca, New York. Each
year the pair has successfully raised four chicks. Though neither bird is
banded, you can still tell the male from the female because the male is missing
his rear facing toe (also known as the hallux) on his right foot. He is also
slightly larger than the female. They are not sure if the female is the same
one from all four years, but the Lab is about 99% sure that the male is the
same, because of his missing hallux. It is uncertain how he lost it; perhaps he
hatched without it.
The nesting habits of Great Blue
Herons are mostly a mystery to scientists. Cornell’s nest cam is the first one
inside a Great Blue heron nest, which is exciting for both scientists and the
rest of the community who watches the cam. We were able to watch
never-before-seen behavior, one of the most exciting being egg laying. Over
3000 people eagerly watched as the eggs were laid, seeing the female scrunch
up, pant, and even seem to vibrate, until she suddenly stood up and–poof—there
was an egg. Watching it happen live was an amazing experience.
After the fourth (and supposedly
final) egg was laid, everyone calmed down for the incubation period. But then,
about two days after the fourth egg appeared, the female stood up—and the few
people watching at two in the morning did a double take. Was there a FIFTH egg?
There was! This was an extremely rare occurrence in the world of Great Blues. A
fifth egg has only been recorded a few times, and each time the fifth chick was
smaller than the others and never made it to adulthood. Now we were all
worried. But miraculously, the fifth chick (nicknamed “Fiver” by the audience)
Watching the chicks grow up was an
amazing experience for everyone, including me. Some of my favorite moments were
when the eggs were laid. When that happened, the chat that went along with the
cam erupted in hundreds of typed comments and exclamations of wonder,
excitement, and, of course, congratulations and encouragement to the female.
In early May, when the chicks had
just hatched, I had an opportunity to see a Great Blue Heron nest where I live
in Memphis, Tennessee. It wasn’t in a rookery, as Great Blue nests often are,
but was still exciting all the same. The nest was at Lichterman Nature Center,
overhanging a marsh. It had been there for at least a year, and my family and I
had seen it once before in June 2011. At that time the chicks were almost ready
to fledge. But this time, in early May, the chicks were still too little to be
seen over the edge of the nest. When I looked up at the nest, I saw that one of
the parents was standing on it, probably standing guard over the nestlings. The
other parent was flying overhead. A few minutes later, the flying parent was
joined by another heron. But it wasn’t its mate. This was a different one altogether.
I waited for the intruder to be chased off, as often happens with lone heron
nests, but the parent did nothing. The intruder just flew off on its own.
Whatever was happening is a mystery to me. Perhaps there was another heron nest
nearby. I’ve never gotten the chance to test that idea; not yet, anyway.
Seeing a Great Blue Heron nest in
real life is amazing, and seeing it on your computer is, as well. Cornell’s
first three heron chicks fledged on June 21, 2012, starting at about 9 AM. The
fourth and fifth chicks fledged on July 5. The fledging was greeted by cheers
and congratulations, but we’ll all miss these five little herons we watched
grow from egg to magnificent water bird. I can’t wait till next year!
About the author: Katie Boord is a thirteen-year-old homeschooled birder from
Northwest Mississippi. She doesn't know when she started loving nature, but she
started birding in 2005, when she was six years old. Katie is the second oldest
of seven children, with one older brother and five younger ones. She moved to
Mississippi in 2010, after living in upstate New York for five years and before
that in St. Louis, Missouri. She has birded in other states as well, including
Maryland, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Massachusetts. Katie's favorite places
to bird are: George Landis Arboretum in Esperance, NY, Arkabutla Lake, which is
half in Horn Lake, MS, and half in Coldwater, MS, and anywhere on the
Chesepeake Bay. When not birding, Katie likes to sing, play violin and piano,
play soccer, shoot with her archery league, and write on her blog, http://katydidsandbluebirds.blogspot.com/.