Last year we visited the local rookery in May, when the leaves were out, the nests were plentiful, the toads were singing, and mushrooms were shiny with moisture. I believe we counted about 35 nests with approximately 60 birds. This year, I decided to go check out the herons a bit earlier, hoping to observe the nest building process. In northern Illinois, great blue herons lay their eggs in late March to April, so the nest building was in progress now. Just about 15 nests were up in the trees so far. Babies hatch in May, and by August they leave the nests to feed with the grownups.
These birds are 40 feet high up in the dead trees, our first Spring morning was quite grey, and I tried not to disturb their peace, so pardon the photos for the lack of detail. These majestic birds stand 4 feet tall and have a 6 foot wing span. They captivate with their beauty, ability to switch shapes between a curled up ball and a graceful long flyer, and their concentrated demeanor, sitting there patiently like frozen Buddhas on their stick pillows. Here, a male blue heron is disassembling an older nest and flying the twigs over to his female companion. The female then weaves the sticks into a new nest, which can range from 20 inches to a few feet wide.
I noticed that one of the herons was not fitting into his sleepy crowd. He curiously kept looking around at the noisy geese down below in the bog, checking out the ducks quacking a distance away. After a while, he flew closer to the ladies (I assume?) who were perched on brand new nests. One of them protested with a puff of feathers and a loud trumpeted bark. The curious gentleman then began his grooming procedure fluffing the chest feathers, periodically checking in with the upset lady: “How is it looking now, honey?” The feathers on the chest of the great blue heron are highly specialized and will continually grow and fray, kind of like a powdery down. Herons use their chest feathers to remove slime and oils from their other feathers as they preen. I was grateful for this entertaining bit, for my hands began freezing holding the camera. A good twenty minutes of grooming did not impress the grumpy lady, so he spotted another heron flying off, and with some trumpeting calls, he took off right behind.