For the Birds Radio Program: Great Blue Heron Nest in Sapsucker Woods!

Original Air Date: May 12, 2009

A pair of Great Blue Herons has started nesting in the pond in Sapsucker Woods, right outside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They appear to be incubating eggs now.

Duration: 3′38″


Nesting Great Blue Herons

People at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, spend so much time with birds that it’s often hard to impress them. But beginning on April 30, when two Great Blue Herons began building a nest in a dead snag in full view of the Lab’s visitor’s center and offices, a great many people at the Lab have been gravitating to the windows and staring, with wonder and elation, at these excellent birds and their fascinating courtship behaviors.

A Great Blue Heron standing on a branch in a large snag is an impressive sight. They stand over 4 feet tall, and even if they weigh barely 5 pounds, their huge wings and long legs and neck seem out of place so far off the ground. But herons have a long back toe, allowing them a firm balancing grip, and appear as comfortable up there as they do standing on solid ground or in a pond.

Great Blue Herons typically nest in colonies, often called heronries or rookeries, and these colonies are very vulnerable to human disruption and disturbance. The two birds that started building this nest in Sapsucker Woods are apparently able to take people in stride—I’ve been photographing one of them who has allowed me to stand surprisingly close as he or she preens or basks in the sun. If this nest succeeds, chances are that at least some of the offspring will one day nest here, too, and other herons may take notice and start nests of their own here. So we may be witnessing the inception of a long-term colony.

The inception of their own nest seemed rather precarious. At first when they brought up sticks, they had trouble balancing them on the branches of the snag, even within the crotch between the trunk and a large limb. So progress was very slow the first couple of days. But after they’d managed to get five or six sticks firmly wedged in there, the process became much easier, and within 7 or 8 days of their first attempts, they had enough of a structure that the female apparently laid her first egg. Now the birds are taking turns incubating. When one flies in after spending time fishing, they assume interesting postures and engage in some gorgeous displays. I’ve taken photos of a lot of this, and even finally managed to catch them in the act of mating. If one Great Blue Heron looks awkward and precarious in a tree, another Great Blue Heron standing on her back and flopping his wings to keep his balance looks even more awkward and precarious. The whole thing has been mesmerizing and distracting for people who ostensibly have work to do. The lunchroom where we have a spotting scope set up on them draws me in like a magnet, and I’m afraid the situation will grow worse before it eases up. Sometime in the middle of June the eggs will hatch, and suddenly little baby herons will be poking their heads up and we’ll be able to watch and study them as they grow up. It’s all very exciting and hopeful, because hope, indeed, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.