The Lonely Heron

The lonely heron (or egret) stood at the edge of the water, long spindly legs supporting his perfectly white feathered body, his ess curved neck turning occasionally with calm deliberation. His long sharp beak must have ignited fear in every little mud scrambler or water creature, although they didn’t have to fear for long. He was so quick at snatching a morsel of dinner you would hardly notice.

There were a few ducks nearby, such different fowl from the heron. They swam and feasted, sometimes simultaneously, moving effortlessly from one area to another. The ducks were playful, pestering each other, diving head first into the cloudy water and coming up a distance away. The tall heron was silent and stood for long minutes as still as one of the sweetgum trees or oaks nearby, only his alert eyes seeming to move at all.

On the other side of a wide boardwalk, gliding towards the deep water, were black and gray Canada geese. Perhaps less playful than the ducks, they still were noisy and opinionated, asserting their claim to the lake. They were sociable, communicating with each other. Three more geese flew in from the other side of the lake, slicing smoothly into the water’s surface and instantly becoming part of the party.

Still, the heron kept watch, only moving a few feet occasionally along the edge of the water, sometimes in the water, yellow legs making squiggly reflections, sometimes on the shore. He seemed preoccupied as if he were studying to make a long speech. Then, like a snake striking, he would bend his long neck and spear a fish or frog pulling them neatly out of the lake, barely disturbing the surface.

There were several kinds of ducks, some dark brown, some almost golden, some male Mallards with unbelievably colorful markings–glistening green heads, a brown bib, as well as black and gray feathers along their backs. The mama Mallards are just as pretty in a much more subtle way. There weren’t many white ducks but two or three pair. They swam and foraged for water weeds and rested together not mixing with other ducks, or with the geese, or trying to converse with the silent heron.

Why was that heron all alone? Every time we went to Lake Cherokee (about once a week during the long Covid year) we could depend on seeing him there in the same location, all alone, no other heron to keep him company. I use the male pronoun, though I have no idea what sex the heron is. Maybe it was a she all alone with no one to tell her whether or not her feathers were smooth or to tell her troubles to. Whichever sex, why were there no other herons? When we had Covid we were absent from the lake for several weeks. When we went back, there was that heron, the only one of his kind, still fishing the same corner of the lake.

With my penchant for romance, I rushed to assume that herons mate for life, that the mate of this one had died, and that this lonely widow or widower stalked the shores or took flight across the tiny inlet, day by day, year by year, sad and grief stricken.

Then I decided to learn more about this lovely, sad, amazing bird.

I haven’t by any means done an exhaustive study but here are a few facts I have gleaned.

The great heron, great egret, snowy egret, and blue heron all have a wingspan of 4.3 to 5.6 feet and stand three to four feet tall. It is very hard for an amateur to distinguish between some of these herons and egrets so I’m not sure my lonely bird is a great heron or a great egret but I know it is great! Some have long thick yellow beaks and yellow legs, some have dark beaks and legs. Some grow beautiful plumes during mating season. The majestic great blue heron is colorful, but most of the egrets and herons are white, some snowier than others.

During mating season herons pair off though there’s no proof they mate for life. The male builds the nest in the top of a very sturdy tree, usually near water. Sometimes he lets his mate help him finish the job. Maybe she does the decorating! The nest is about four feet wide and a foot deep, quite a structure. And they reportedly do not use their nest again. What a waste! Heron eggs are about as big around as a chicken egg but longer. Egret eggs are a bit smaller.

Only a few of the young ones survive, not so much because of predators like hawks or foxes, but because the herons and egrets are very bad at siblicide. Yes, they are very agressive chicks, and very jealous too, and they eat each other.

Those plumes that herons grow during mating season? They are stunningly beautiful, I guess. My heron (or egret) only has a few dark plumes at the back of his neck. But the showy ones grow on the bird’s back. These plumes became cause for near distinction of the bird in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ladies loved to have those plumes in their hats and would pay a good price for them. But, happily for the herons, by 1910 it became illegal to hunt them. The Audubon Society was founded to protect birds from feather hunters.

Herons and egrets do migrate, always in flocks, but in the southeast U.S. they stay year round.

Almost everything I’ve read indicates that the heron belongs to a very sociable species, one whose members nest often in colonies, who fly together to migrate, and who, though silent unless very disturbed, seem to communicate with each other.

So why is this Cherokee Lake heron/egret always alone? I observed him week by week for months and always he was a loner. Yesterday Charles and I had the opportunity to drive over to Cherokee Lake, the first time in several weeks. I eagerly looked along the edges of the little inlet but he wasn’t there. We studied the shores for the tall white graceful bird but there was no sign of him. Geese and ducks were everywhere but no heron.

Was he in grieving and finally found another mate? Was he ostracized but finally welcomed back? Had he gotten lost somehow?

One thing is clear: he was a beautiful creation. He will never know how much pleasure he gave people just by being there in his little corner of the world, doing what he knew how to do, fishing and being beautiful. Wherever he is now, I hope he’s doing the same–except maybe now he has a mate, maybe a friend or two.

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