The great blue heron: A Chesapeake treasure

Gilbert Byron

April 04, 1991|By Gilbert Byron

Gilbert Byron speaks in the present tense of Old House Cove on the Chesapeake near St. Michaels. He lived alone in a cabin there for many years and filed numerous dispatches to Other Voices. This year, illness and blindness have forced him to an Easton nursing home, where he dictated this article.

I THINK it is fitting that this year the great blue heron, a true Chesapeake treasure, is gracing a special Maryland license plate to raise money for bay cleanup efforts.

In my youth, we didn't call this magnificent bird a great blue heron; we called it a crane. It seemed that every point on the Chester River, where I lived as a boy, had a great blue heron. They are territorial birds. They have long, almost spike-like, bills, and they eat all sorts of seafood -- crabs, snakes, small minnows, large fish.

They stride along in the shallow water near the shore or sometimes stay in one spot looking for a school of fish or something to attack. When we approached them in our boat -- often it was my father's 15-foot bateau -- the herons would make deep-throated calls, "Aawk, aawk, aawk!" -- and fly away down the river. That pattern is still there, and the herons are still there, their habits little changed in the 80 years I've known them.

During their mating season, two males will fight for the favors of the female until one of them finally drives the other away and takes over. On a number of occasions I've seen two male herons spar with their long bills like swordsmen. Herons often nest in pairs in isolation, or they will form colonies where maybe eight or 10 will share a tree in a secluded spot in a marsh. Here they make their nests, where they will raise two or three young. Herons seem to be generally long-lived; evidently, they live 10 to 15 years on the average, although one was recorded as living 23 years.

Of course, I have a heron on Old House Cove. I think it's the same one year-round. In the winter, he often goes up to the head of the cove in the marsh, which seems to be better protected. At other times of the year, he flies up and down the cove, never seeming to tire of the rather small area. As he prepares to retire for the night, he screams and squawks, trying to persuade others to move away and give him access to his nest.

My old friend, Captain G. I. Jump, used to tell a story about a heron on the cove. "Mr. Byron," he said, "I was watching the old heron fishing for soft crabs off the point the other day, and by mistake he grabbed a hard crab and took it up and threw it around and tried to eat it. You can imagine the racket he made: 'Keeeerist! I'm tired of hard shells!' "

For several summers during the Depression, my wife and I camped with a number of her cousins along the Sassafras River. One of these cousins, Annebelle, had a son named Martin who was maybe 7 or 8 years old. He loved to walk along the shore looking for anything; he was a great beachcomber. He'd go out after a bad blow and once came back with a set of steps which had come from someone's yacht during the storm. We were always curious about what he would bring back to the camp.

One time, I heard Martin's voice: "Mama! Mama! Look what I got!" So I put my book down and picked up my camera and went outside. There was Martin holding a great blue heron just like it was a turkey, its head sticking up higher than his own. It tickled Annebelle and me, but when my camera clicked, the heron all of a sudden turned and made a stab at Martin's head with his beak.

Fortunately, Martin wasn't hurt, but he let out a whoop and let the heron go. This bird -- he had been caught in a fence -- didn't fly away, but instead stalked off toward the river in what seemed to be disgust.

I hope the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and marshes will continue to provide food and shelter for this most marvelous of wading birds for years to come.

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