ALWAYS IN SEASON: A wily heron moves north to nest
GRAND FORKS — A green heron nest has been found in Grand Forks. This is noteworthy because it continues a streak of infrequent but regular nesting reports.
It also suggests that Robert Stewart's "Breeding Birds of North Dakota" has become dated. The book was published in 1975 and examined records of every species known to have nested in the state up to that time.
Stewart found only one record, of a single nest along the James River near Jamestown, N.D. He also mentioned sightings of green herons in other parts of the state. This year's record is at least the second consecutive year for green heron nests in Grand Forks, according to Dave Lambeth, who coordinates the Grand Cities Bird Club and monitors its chat group.
Last week, he reviewed recent records, including his first local green heron nest, which he found while canoeing the Turtle River near Manvel, N.D. That was in 1979.
Lambeth noted, "There are a few other nests that I know about."
All of this led him to rank the green heron as rare in our area on the Grand Forks County checklist. My copy of this useful list dates from 2009.
Herons like shallow, well-shaded watercourses, and the Turtle River is a good example. The English Coulee also qualifies, and Lambeth said in his post, "Those who bird along English Coulee in late spring almost expect to see one or more green herons."
He said of the species, "I suspect they are becoming more common."
His opinion meshes with other sources, which suggest that green herons have pushed north and west in recent decades. This places the heron among those species pioneering new areas. Like their relatives, snowy egrets and great egrets, green herons have exploited suitable habitat along the northern and western edges of their historic ranges. In effect, the southeast is moving northwest.
Cardinals move north
Another avian example of such pioneering is the northern cardinal, a southern bird despite its name. Cardinals have spread northward over the last several decades. Though not common in our area yet, they have become established and are definitely increasing.
The theory about cardinals is that they responded to milder conditions and more food, much of it provided by bird lovers who provided sunflower and other seed — not specifically to attract cardinals, of course, but the activity had that collateral effect.
This explanation doesn't work for green herons, though, because they don't come to food that people provide. Green herons are fish eaters. In fact, they could be called "fisher birds" because they "fabricate various baits that entice fish to where they can grab them," according to the species monograph in "The Birds of North America."
This places them among those species of birds known to make use of tools.
For many of us, the word heron conjures a bird with long legs and neck. The great egret is an example, a beautiful white bird that moves with grace and elegance. The great blue heron, much more common here, is also an elegant bird.
Not so the green heron. Rather than statuesque, which fairly describes the great blue heron and the great egret, the green heron suggests a different adjective.
The green heron is a much smaller bird, about 15 inches long, about half the length of a great blue heron. As in most herons, its tail is short, and its bill is large. It practically lacks a neck, however. Its legs are longish for its body size but very short in comparison with its relatives.
So the adjective to describe the green heron is "squat."
What's more, the green heron isn't really green, except in exceptional light. Most of the time, these birds appear dark, with flashes of purple and rust, again depending on the light.
This does not make them hard to identify, though. Their shape is distinctive, and so is their behavior. A green heron flushed from its perch or its fishing hole takes off with a squawk and—more often than not — let's fly a ... well you get the picture. This has earned the bird descriptive nicknames, including fly-up-the-crick, chalk-line and shite-poke.
Despite their preference for wetlands, green herons build their nests in trees and sometimes quite a ways from water. One of the nests mentioned earlier is several blocks from standing water — and it is hidden near the top of a spruce tree.
What we have in the green heron is a wily and wary bird well worth watching for.