Missing Great Blue

•May 1, 2009 • 1 Comment

I walk 4 or 5 times a week on Fiesta Island and have come to see territories claimed by various creatures, a little blue here, an Osprey there between 7 and 8 in the morning.

Three years ago when I started birding I noticed a young blue heron. He was always at the same location, his territory I assumed. I always came about 7:00 AM and rain or shine, he was standing post.

I had recently discovered a nesting sight for Great Blues and was following the maturation of two chicks. I had watched them grow, stretch their feathers, practicing to fledge. Then one day…they were gone. I wondered at the time if maybe this bird was one of the fledges. Maybe not, but it was continuity for me.

One day about 2 years ago I noticed he had a piece of wood jammed into a space below his beak. It was at least 14 inches long. When he would move his head it would move. I was frantic with maternal instinct, made a few telephone calls to the local wildlife people and was told that: “Nature will take its course. We don’t intervene in cases like this.” He didn’t appear to be disabled.

Over the next year the stick became shorter and shorter. For the last 6 months it appeared to be about 4 inches long. So obviously, it hadn’t interfered with eating or balance, or survival. I often wondered if it was a deterent to a female who he might be drawn to, much like a person with a handicap is often detered in human relations. (I once traveled with a friend who had lost a limb and was made very aware of how different her experience is in the world.) Creatures are very visual, especially birds, whose health and sexual attractiveness is signaled by visual cues, brightness of feathers, etc. He had this thing sticking out of his mouth. It might be difficult to help feed young. It might be a turn off.

Years ago I read Painted Bird, a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński which describes the world as seen by a young Jewish boy hiding during World War II in barns and forests.  The book was filled with allegories about human beings.  In one of the stories, the boy meets a man who captures birds.   Occasionally, when bored, (and reflecting his true nature),  the man paints one of his birds with many bright colors of paint.   He then releases the bird who flies to join his flock.   The painted bird is now perceived as “other” and is torn apart by the other birds.

The Great Blue was a survivor but I hadn’t seen him for a month. I know many Great Blues migrate. Maybe he decided to go on a long trip this year. I hope so.

I have been taking care of my ailing mother for 5 years. This month she had a fall and broke some bones in her neck. She is 91 years old and is currently in the intensive care ward at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. It has been touch and go and we have concerns about her surviving this last onslaught. So in the morning when I walk my dog, she is heavy on my mind.

This morning when I drove past the the Great Blue’s sentinel spot, I imagined him somewhere, now bones and dust, a jawbone, with an imbeded piece of wood with bone grown around it.


Ravens on Fiesta Island

•July 18, 2008 • 1 Comment

Yesterday I walked with my dog at my favorite dog walking place. It was about 7:30 which is late to see birds. The heat was already up and the usual Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks were wherever they go to avoid the heat. The space was empty of birds. Except for a Great Blue Heron fishing there were none to see. Disappointed, I wasn’t going to get the peaceful high I get from looking closely at birds. I carried my Bruntons anyway and walked for 45 minutes.

There are two eucalyptus trees in the dog section where sometimes I see Cooper’s Hawks and last year a beautiful American Kestrel. Ever hopeful I spotted a large shape on a branch and my spirits perked up. I adjusted the eyepieces on my binoculars and took an expectant look. Two Common Ravens!

I just finished reading Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich, biology professor at U Vermont, and avid corvidologist. His passion is ravens and he has spent almost 20 years studying them. Apparently ravenologists exist in all countries and they are an unusual breed. They believe in observation up close so they are tree climbers, placing themselves very close to nests. In the 90’s Heinrich removed several baby ravens from their nest to raise by hand and study their behaviors. His justification for robbing the nests was science. I suppose it is our gain that he did it because he accumulated a vast amount of data by observing them up close. He detailed interesting insights accrued from living with his ravens – about their play, their use of tools, their communication patterns, their humor and intelligence, and their pair bonding. One male raven who was his favorite was ready to mate and Heinrich guessed with certainty who his mate would be. But nature had its own way. Heinrich’s aviary allowed wild birds to come and go freely and one day a female raven flew in and she had one white feather.

There must have been an instant attraction between them because they began a process of “getting to know” each other, displaying prowess, power, beauty, indifference and interest. He told her he was powerful and she responded that she was powerful too. After several hours “white feather” as she was to be named signaled that he was acceptable and he moved to the left side of her and put his right foot on her left foot. That was all she wrote!

At least ten years passed before Heinrich published Mind of the Raven, and during those years he observed the paired couple raising many broods. He said every afternoon that the two ravens would fly to a nearby tree to sit quietly and watch the world go by, and every night when they went to sleep, the male would put his right foot on her left foot.

I thought about that as I observed the pair on the eucalyptus. Both birds were big and their tails were long and formed the identifying wedge shape. The two sat apart but made croaking noises and sweet melodic sounds non-stop. Their beaks were large and when they soared off their wings were broad. I could see the longer primaries with more slotting between them. Confirmed! They were Common Ravens, not American Crows! The process of seeing, looking closely and integrating the visual with the knowledge I had learned from the Cornell site came through, leaving me calm and smiling.


•June 10, 2008 • 2 Comments

Yesterday morning early, I went for my usual dog walk on Fiesta Island. On the way to the leash free area I spotted an osprey sitting on top of a telephone pole. He was bright and healthy looking. Many ospreys I have seen lately look very shaggy and “unkempt” like life is hard.

Feeling blessed, since it is June and there isn’t the bounty of birds like in April and May, I stopped and pulled out my Brunton binoculars, quieted my dog and propped myself against my car in order to watch this magnificent bird for a while. Then I noticed that he was holding a small shark between his feet. It was perfectly shaped – I thought submarine – 9 inches of sleek tail and top fin. It twitched and then the osprey began to eat the shark’s head. This magnificent raptor kept his eye on me the whole time.

In the early 70’s the osprey nearly became extinct due to disruption of breeding and living sites by human development. This was coupled with the assault on their reproductive systems by the ubiquitous use of DDT. Osprey eggshells became too thin to support life, as did the eggs of several other species. Nesting colonies disappeared.

DDT was banned in 1972 and by the early 1990’s ospreys began to nest in San Diego harbor. There is a mast on a sail boat in San Diego (off of Quivera and Mission Bay Boulevard) that has become the site of an enormous nest. A good spotting scope can make it possible to see the Ospreys at work feeding their young on this boat.

Great Blue Follow-up

•May 12, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This morning I went to see the baby that we photographed 8 days ago. I fully expected the fledgling to have taken off, but he’s still there! I arrived about noon and his parents arrived at the same time. So I was able to watch him get fed. It was an amazing sight.

In that same tree is another nest with two chicks in it. Their parents also arrived and it was amazing to see the chicks squawking greetings. The noise was deafening as the siblings yelled for their food, bickered with each other and pushed each other with their necks for the right to first food. Both parents fed them and it was wild to observe.

I am new at this and I am finding myself looking for the same birds. Nearly every morning I check the GBH nesting site. And I never tire of the Western Meadowlarks and Horned Larks that I see where I walk daily – listening to them sing, and watching their mating behaviors. This morning I listened to a magnificent Meadowlark standing on top of a small bush – singing his heart out.

I have downloaded the lists of all the California birds and I notice that I am not particularly driven to see “new” birds, although I do enjoy discovering, identifying and checking them off the list. As it happens, this morning I drove my car a half mile in soggy sand because I was chasing what turned out to be my first Little Blue Heron. It was wonderful and new. But I think it is in my nature to take things slow and deep, to get near and close and quiet. This is how I am learning to see and enjoy the layers of seeing. It soothes me and calms me and I am grateful. (This post was written in March 07.)

Great Blue Heron Fledgling

•May 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

A few days ago my friend Anna went with me to see the baby herons. She’s a photographer with a camera with a 400mm lens and I was hoping to get a shot of a 2 month old baby that I have been regularly watching since he hatched. He was at least two months old and he was going to take off soon. At any moment, in fact. As we watched he stood in his nest and practiced stretching and working his great wings. He is about 2/3 adult size now. Here he is! Check out his fuzzy topknotch!




These first images aren’t quite in focus, but at least you can see this wonderful moment. What is his first flight like for him? Surely there is an ecstasy that must flood the heron when he takes flight. I struggle with the warnings about projecting our humanness onto birds. I have a hard time believing that survival is the only driving force. Or, if it is, then survival includes pleasure in all of its dimensions, including mastering flight. (This post was written in March 07.)

Great Blue Heron

•May 1, 2008 • Leave a Comment

This morning I went to the sites I’ve been visiting daily where Great Blue Herons are nesting. It has become an important daily activity for me, watching these families of birds. Active nesting behavior is happening at both sites and a patient wait will reveal one bird of a breeding pair flying in with a long stick or branch that has been stripped of leaves and passing it on to the mate. I have seen this on multiple occasions this week. I named the recipient “mom”, although I don’t know how to sex the birds. Both parents look the same to me, but then, I am new to birding.

“Mom” took the branch that was about 3 feet long and began an intricate weaving – pushing the stick in, forcing it through the existing nest, then pulling it out, then pushing it in again. It was deliberate and skillful, a technique that has been in heron bones and feathers for thousands of years.

I have been watching this pair for about 2 months. The first time I saw them I was driving down Ingraham Street and I saw a huge bird fly into a Eucalyptus tree. I was a fairly new birder, and I thought that the bird looked like a crane. I had heard that you could distinguish herons from cranes by how they fly. Herons bend their long necks during flight and cranes fly with their necks outstretched.

But this bird was flying with his neck stretched out. I soon discovered that on take off and arrival Great Blue Herons fly with their necks out!

Anyway, I stopped my car and luckily had my new Brunton Binoculars at my side and scoped the area. This Eucalyptus tree had 6 huge nests in it, and they were all occupied! It was very exciting to see these great birds, some of them over 3 feet tall, standing, grooming, tending to their nests. I didn’t see any babies yet.

More to come. (This post was written in February 07.)


•May 1, 2008 • 1 Comment

Yesterday I realized that I am changing, growing as a birder. It had rained and I had just finished a long walk with my dog, As I was driving home I spied some ducks who were new to this bay. I pulled over to observe them and I noticed that as a group they were all grooming themselves. I guess it was that time of day. They were cleaning their feathers, picking and nibbling on themselves, stretching their wings out and shaking them, and occasionally standing on the water and flapping their wings as if they were aerating them. I need to research what exactly it is they are doing. They probably have mites, and maybe they have daily waterproofing issues. I know that some birds have to frequently renew the waterproofing of their feathers. What was amazing was that the entire group was engaged in this activity. It had a social dimension to it. Being with your own kind, all doing the same thing.

These were canvasbacks hanging out with scaups. I watched them for a long time. And I realized that I was really seeing them. I knew without a doubt what a canvasback duck looks like. (At least the male!) (At least in Spring!) (At least while in a breeding phase!) I knew!

I have begun to be able to see. I am learning and this is exciting. I am a beginner but I know enough now to begin to distinguish things: the red head and neck, the red eyes; the patterns of color on the body, the black breast. the greyish or white back and flanks, the white belly and black tail. I saw the sloping forehead and the peaked crown. I saw his upward curved black bill. I saw him.

This is how a new birder learns to see.