Water Closet for June 20, 2014

Usually our weekly closet essay is written first, and then a suitable photo sought.

Great Blue Heron family at soon to be regurgitated meal, Fish Brook watershed, North Andover    -   Judy Schneider photo

Great Blue Heron family at soon to be regurgitated meal, Fish Brook watershed, North Andover
– Judy Schneider photo

This week Stream Team photographer Judy Schneider has taken the lead with a domestic scene of beauty.  The feathered family photographed is on and around a rough nest of sticks high in a beaver-drowned White Pine.

Imagine a human back yard in summer where a family awaits Dad’s return from work on Friday evening.  It is payday and he is coming home with the family’s favorite pizza.  He leaps off the back porch steps holding boxes on high.  Mom and kids rise from the table.  Dad is greeted with hoarse cheers; not unlike the reunion in Judy’s photo of the Great Blue Heron family only much more down to earth.  The human kids may participate in this summer ritual for years to come; the hungry young herons have just a few more weeks before their wings are strong and sure, and parents issue them pilot licenses. [pullquote]”heron parents venture out up to a “score” of miles to catch fish, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and insects for their fast growing young” [/pullquote]Their first flight as fledglings will be from a platform 60 feet above the potentially dangerous water below.  Most area heron rookeries are above beaver impoundments.  Birders studying maiden flights have learned that crashing into feather wetting water usually marks a young bird’s last flight.

And speaking of feathers, note the ballerina like spread of parent’s wings with primaries extended like fingers as she or he descends to waiting young.  It reminds us of a Bolshoi ballerina, dancing the swan in Swan Lake, as she slowly flaps her wings with fingers spread.  Of course with the heron the flight home to hungry offspring is not that of a dying swan, but rather of glorious life.  Strong fledglings will go out on their own to experience all kinds of adventures along rivers, in ponds and lakes, and at estuaries on the coast where there is open water in winter.

The Great Blue Heron has a wing span up to six feet, a length, bill tip to toe, of four; all this length and breath only weighs in at seven pounds.  Note that the young after just a month and one-half are almost as large as parents.  Herons are all muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, gut, skin and feathers; beautiful flying-hunting machines with very little fat perfected over millions of years.  A brain of only a couple ounces knows well what to do.  We can see in the aerial tableau caught here that the players’ coordination is a thing of beauty.  A ballerina with a large brain and many years training exhibits no greater physical grace.  Is it any wonder we heron fans return to the rookeries again and again each season.  Human performances are held in theatres with only one stage.  In Middleton alone this summer there are at least 80 nests where these movements can be silently applauded.  The performers are certainly not silent especially at meal times.

The range for this family caught by camera in a twenty-foot diameter sphere will be hundreds of miles in a few months, not just the White Pine top’s branches and radii of trips by parents out for food.  According to the Closet’s oft quoted authority, the late1 Edward Forbush, heron parents venture out up to a “score” of miles to catch fish, frogs, snakes, small mammals, and insects for their fast growing young.  In November Great Blue Herons will fly hundreds of miles in southerly migrations to year round open fresh waters or salty places along the coast.  In paddles and hikes around eastern Massachusetts we’ve noticed that herons not at rookery are alone.  Their stalking for fish and frogs in shallows is solitary.  However, Forbush cites a number of reports of migrations, some of dozens, scores, or several hundred participants flying southward over the Cape and islands in November.  Sibley’s map showing year round ranges of the species has many wintering in Central America. In much of the lower-half of the United States above Mexico, they are found year round. Here we see them now and then in winter.  Last winter one was regularly seen fishing in a very small ice free spot between the thick ice of Middleton Pond and that of the beaver impoundment around Aunt Bett’s Pond.  This opening was at the outlet of a culvert under Lake Street.   Something kept it liquid.  We wonder if the heron didn’t splash around to keep the 30 by 5 feet patch, his source of fish, from freezing.  Most likely there is a spring just underneath bringing forth warmer ground water.  Next winter we’ll bring a thermometer and check.  That roadside heron would let hikers get well within 100 feet before flying off.

Tomorrow on the Ipswich River Watershed’s annual Source to Sea3 paddle on the Middleton section of the river we’ll probably see a Great Blue or two.  Often on rounding a bend we spook one fishing.  It gracefully rises and flies low in the direction we are going.  A few minutes later, the same fisher-bird rises up ahead again.  This may happen a half dozen times in two miles of meanders.  Sometimes, perhaps a smarter one rises up and over to fish behind paddlers now going away.  Common as they are, usually on seeing one a paddler will point and call out “look, heron!”   Red-winged Blackbirds and even Wood Ducks don’t get the same attention.  It must have to do with size and grace.

Seek out a beaver meadow in your town where there are still standing dead White Pines.  You may spot large nests high up in their leafless branches.  Herons are gregarious while nesting; many nests are clustered over a small area.  In Middleton there are three rookeries.4  Judy’s photo was taken in North Andover where there is a rookery off Winter Street.  On driving north on I-95 another can be seen to the west in Georgetown.  Several years ago there was a very large rookery, 70 nests or so, above a beaver impoundment in Greenbelt’s Carter Fields on the North Andover-Boxford line.  We haven’t visited it for several years.  Nest pines, victims of rot, nor’easters and ice, only stand so long.

A frequent topic of discussion here in the weekly Water Closet and in our shack by the river is change.  In forty-years of watching the river we are struck by its weekly, seasonal, yearly, and generational changes.  Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, Green Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons as well as other animals and plants are part of these periodic changes.  Are population changes of plants and animals cyclic?  We’ve come to doubt that they are.  We wish Vermonter Judy had been here taking photographs of the river as a little girl; we would then have a better idea.  She certainly caught a moment in space and time with this one.

1   We hesitate to use the word “late” for Edward Howe Forbush (1859 to 1929); his three tomes on Birds of Massachusetts published almost a century ago are very much alive for Stream Teamers and Closeteers.

2   Wilmington to Plum Island Sound; each spring and summer Ipswich River Watershed Association paddlers do four sections, one per Saturday.  Visit the association’s website for this and other activities.

3   Map page 60. Sibley, James Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds (Alfred A, Knopf, New York) 2000.

4   About 40 nests in the very northern tip of Middleton; 14 nests over a swamp just to the southwest of Middleton Pond; and 25 or so nests above Emerson Bog to the southwest of Route 114




Precipitation Data* for Month of: March April May June
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.65 4.53 4.06 3.95
 2013 – 14 Central Watershed Actual 4.32 2.86 2.77 1.6 of 6/17

Ipswich R. Flow Rate(S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS): For June 17, 2014 Normal . . . 31CFS            Current Rate  . . . 32CFS

*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru May. Normalsdata is from the National Climatic Data Center.

**Updated June precipitation data is from MST gage..

THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584