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Against the Wind 

A walk on the wild side with Colorado Springs' great blue herons

My honest-to-God first Colorado Springs experience was to park my car on Tejon, sit down at Poor Richard's Feed and Read and begin reading a used copy of Chesapeake perched on a shelf above the table. Before making it half-way through my sandwich, I was lost in a canoe below the Conowingo falls, seeing the Bay through the eyes of Pentaquod, the fleeing Susquehannock who is patriarch to the 450 year epic about to unfold. A few pages later Pentaquod watches Fishing-long-legs, the awkwardly tall wading bird with the ruffled plumage impersonating the reeds as it stands, eyes fixed, beak cocked, ready to snatch a fish in the blink of an eye. I bought the book for $2, the best $2 I ever spent. (The best $1 was to split a $2 rowboat with my father.)

I grew up within spitting distance of the Chesapeake, but it wasn't until the spring before I transferred to Colorado College that I really spent any time on the Bay. I worked at an outdoor school, and any time I left the 350 unimproved acres that the school shared with the Nature Reserve, I saw herons. Flying out of the peat bog we canoed through at dusk, taking leave before we could quietly round the corner in a maze of islands. Nesting on the Coast Guard buoys leading to the Bay's channel. Or fishing along the banks of Still Pond Creek. I think of the great blue heron as a water bird, and I no more expected to find herons in the arid country of Colorado Springs than I would have expected to find a blue crab crawling across the pedestrian crosswalks between Uintah and Cache La Poudre.


A walk on the wild side

It is the 8th Annual Heron Homecoming, and Fountain Creek Nature Center is teeming with visitors. On a day when three-quarters of the public is under the age of 12, there is a celebratory spirit filling the air that belies a pervasive sense of gloom stemming from the fact that the guests of honor, the scores of birds that had taken up residency in the cottonwood trees south of the center and across the creek for each of the past 17 years, were making only a token appearance.

Over the past three years, the great blue herons have disappeared from the rookery. Though El Paso County Parks (EPCP) claims the nests have been empty for three years, careful observers documented 74 birds inhabiting the rookery in 1999, dropping to 33 in 2000 and finally fully abandoning it in 2001 after three pairs arrived early in March but did not stay. Human instinct tells us to find a repository for blame, a target for our finger-wagging where we can dump our frustration with unexplainable natural forces. The Nature Center tells us to resist that instinct.

"When people come in here they look very sad," Interpretive Specialist Jane Hunter explains of the reaction to the absentee herons. "I think it's easy for them to pigeon-hole it into construction." The Nature Center, however, is going out of its way to avoid pigeonholing. In fact, the company line is so unwavering from top to bottom in EPCP that the uniform reluctance to step out of formation makes one wonder what everyone is afraid of.

I'm hiking through the 400-acre park with volunteer naturalist Dale Holst, searching for heron on their homecoming day. The trails are abuzz with wildlife sightings. The park has documented 261 of the 470 species of birds known to populate Colorado, and today an unconfirmed report of a yellow-rumped warbler has volunteers pretty excited. The red-tailed hawk makes an appearance and is welcomed to the fold despite his complicity in harassing the herons and helping to drive them out of their nesting ground. Canada geese and widgeons dot the ponds, and the former can be seen nesting on a sand bar. Esther, volunteer docent, saw a fox earlier in the morning, and though I see no trace of one yet, there has been a heron or two feeding in one pond or another.

"We have natural causes and man-made causes," Interpretive Specialist Ken Pals explains of the herons' departure, "and it's probably a combination of both. We don't think like herons, so how do we know?" Pals breaks off from our trailside conversation to answer questions from passers-by about where to find a wood duck (Rice's ponds, in summer) and bullfrogs (right past the tree; they blend in really well.)

"Dr. Durbin [who owns the property across Fountain Creek containing the old rookery] has observed the red-tailed hawks dive-bombing and harassing the herons, so that's natural causes," Pals continues. "Three years ago we had a cold, late snow in May and I think the eggs got too cold and the young died of exposure. '99 was the big flood and we lost habitat, and then there was human disturbance with that too."

Any disturbance caused by humans is downplayed. The knee-jerk reaction to blame the departure of the great blue heron on widespread and poorly timed flood repair, irrigation improvements, and commercial development seem plausibly mooted by the fact that the herons moved to an even busier location, a stone's throw from the heart of Colorado Springs' most urban, commercial areas, around the corner from Circle Drive and the World Arena.

"Why did they move where they did?" Pals asks, rhetorically. "There's city all around them! That's urban high-rise area. I'd rather find a place farther south or Pinello Ranch or Venetucci Pumpkin Patch; there're some nice cottonwoods there. But they chose that place for some reason."

Pals and Holst show me my first glimpse of the old rookery through the trees from the Nature Center. Pals claims to have seen a heron out of the corner of his eye as we talk -- "I just saw a wing movement going through and it was big and slow" -- but it's at least another half hour before Dale and I finish our hike to the sight of a great blue heron quietly digesting his lunch in the main pond by the Nature Center. The great bird is scrunched up, compacting himself as he works the swallowed-whole fish down his gullet. There is jubilation from the observers inside the Center, overlooking the pond, and a sense of hope with the appearance, after all, of the guest of honor.

Hunter and her cohorts steadfastly maintain that the best anyone can do is speculate, assuring me she'd stick to her guns in or out of uniform. "Everyone has their own theory," she reiterates. "I just think it's too hard to say it's one factor over another factor. Nature's not neat."


Birdland

Beyond the One-Stop Truck Parts and the 24-Hour Bail Bonds, in the shadow of the Sheraton Hotel and A-1 Street Rods, at least 30 heron nests have been built in a grove of mature cottonwoods on a private farm offering no public access. Driving by on Las Vegas, the sight is unmistakable, even for someone who has never seen a rookery and isn't exactly sure what to look for. I swerve off the road and train the binoculars on the nest perched against the mountain backdrop.

The number and grandeur of the birds is unexpectedly exhilarating and I hoot at the sight of the herons moving delicately through the uppermost branches of the trees, the only place that will accommodate their four-foot frames and their six-foot wingspans. They wind their way around the trees and through the grove, necks outstretched in a blatant ploy for a mate, their impossibly long legs merging with branchlets as they slow to a treetop stop with a backward flutter of wings.

I've always had an eye for the bigger part of the picture, gazing off into the mountaintops while those around me scoop arrowheads out of the ground at our feet. Herons are a natural eye-opener for me -- the sledge-hammer sighting for the somnolent observer, the can't-miss trailside attraction. But the ease with which they can be sighted and observed from afar doesn't diminish their impact. Spend a few hours letting the herons take you to the water's edge where April is damp and the birds are built for deep water. Tell me if your day doesn't get better.

Over the course of a week, I gradually, quietly, and gently experiment with getting closer to the birds. Once I came too close, close enough to witness the accumulation of droppings beneath the nests, and I still regret the noticeable disturbance my presence caused throughout the rookery. The cumulative presence of well-intentioned individual observers was no doubt part of the recipe for the heron's departure, and the last thing I want to do is make them uneasy in their new secluded home.

I have to admit, on my initial visits my desire to avoid disturbing the birds is based in self-preservation. I don't want to imply that I'm afraid of a little birdy, but one friend told me before I headed out that he called these birds "shit pokes" back home, and that one had attacked him in the boot once, cutting into the leather. Dan Kerr, a volunteer naturalist, photographer, Fountain City Council member, and the acknowledged local expert on the great blue herons, tells a story that vividly expresses the power in a great blue's beak. In the mid-1980s, he recalls, a researcher was banding herons in Canada when he was struck in the head by the bill of a great blue heron. It pierced his skull and killed him.


Courtship and twiggery

When you sit in the company of large birds you become keenly aware of shadows. Your ear tunes to the snippets of melody from the smaller birds and is re-aimed immediately to the slow, gentle thunder of a rising heron's wing flap.

By the calendar, the herons should be laying their eggs as I watch from the distant property line. There is still a great deal of nest-building going on, and I watch one heron systematically move twigs from a nest in one tree to two new nests in an adjacent branch and another tree. He moves in stealth with justified paranoia, relocating the twigs 10 yards away while a dozen herons watch sullenly from the farmer's fields.

A sentry has moved out to a cottonwood almost directly above me, gliding in without my noticing in a tree without nests. He cocks his eye toward me, observing, learning, as intrigued with me as I am with him. The herons put on a better show, however, offering delicate flirtations in select treetops and the promise of imminent mating rituals to come.

Kerr recalls a spring at the old rookery when he was privy to the beak clacking of courtship. "At one point in time I was able to sit in the Duckwood parking lot [a quarter mile across the creek from the old rookery] and hear the birds up in the nesting site clack their bills, they were so loud." In their new home I witness the stick exchange, one of the final gestures symbolizing a pair's commitment, the offering of a twig for a nest from a male, and the acceptance of all it represents from the female.

It is quiet here at the new rookery, if you don't count the white noise of an interstate intersection at the far corner of their land. I follow their smooth, circuitous flight in and out of the trees, making seamless concentric switchbacks as they slowly gain altitude before drifting into the twigs above their nests. Their long, sticklike legs step through the precarious branches as though they are walking through water, the high lift of each leg carrying an assured steadiness that turns awkward angles into a graceful statuesque presence.

Lost in the minutia of their motions, I'm caught off-guard by a mass exodus from the rookery. I put the binoculars down and gaze up in wonder at their collective soaring before I discover the motivation for the movement. A trio of bicyclists has bushwhacked into the cottonwoods, alarming the sensitive birds into flight. It will be nearly three hours before the birds feel comfortable enough to return to their nests.

"They've rediscovered a place and they've set up nests and they're thriving," Hunter tells me later with grave concern, "and now [with a potential influx of heron-watchers] they might be scared away." Hunter recalls a vivid experience in her first year at the Nature Center that was as awe-inspiring as it was troublesome. A green heron had built a nest right outside the window of the Nature Center.

"We saw it build the nest and lay an egg and then right after it laid the egg, it kind of rolled it around in the nest, kind of shoved it with its beak, and then it dumped it into the water," Hunter recalls. "It probably figured, 'I've gone to all this work, but I realize now I'm a little too close to people.'" After three straight years with no fledglings as a result of the freeze, the flood, and last year's poor nesting success, even the most casual birder should be concerned to give the birds the buffer space they need to lay, incubate, and hatch their eggs.

As I watch the birds struggle against the evening wind, taking several passes to drift back into their nests, I begin to wonder what effect the migrating birders may have on the herons who endured so much to position themselves for this new stand.


Unnatural history

There it stood, knee-deep in water: tall, thin, awkward, many hands high with extremely long legs and rumpled white head. Its most prominent feature was a long yellowish bill, which it kept pointed downward at the water.

Now Pentaquod stood silent, watching the bird with affection as it stalked slowly, clumsily along the muddy shore, and out into the water until its bandy knees were submerged. Then, with a dart of its long neck so swift that Pentaquod could not follow, it speared its sharp beak into the water and caught a fish. Raising its head, it tossed the fish in the air, catching it as it descended. With a gulp, it swallowed the fish, and Pentaquod could see the progress of the meal is it slowly passed down the extended gullet.

-- James Michener, Chesapeake

After a week with the birds in their new home, it's hard to find the motivation to return to what Ken Pals calls the "ghost town" of the old rookery. The thinned-out grove of cottonwoods across the creek is a silent sight, and raising the binoculars to bridge the distance to the empty nests only makes the effect that much lonelier. I back away from the high corner of the trail along Fountain Creek not sure which direction to walk.

"Do you see any herons over there?" a woman asks as she approaches me on the trail, heading south. She has a Wild Fund cap over her white hair and a great blue heron sweatshirt on. We walk and talk for 45 minutes. She is one of a cadre of godparents to the herons, and she has as many stories to tell about the birds as she does about her own grandchildren. She has the answers to questions I hadn't thought to ask, and it's hard to believe she isn't some sort of plant, sent to infiltrate my solitude and spread propaganda.

A walk along the east side of the creek and a drive on the western periphery of the old rookery makes the various factors impacting the heron habitat plain to see. The relentless red-tailed hawks--who are not predators of the herons, but are practiced in the art of harassment as a way of exerting a sense of territory--may escape the casual eye. The lingering results of the devastating flood of '99, however, are bold and blatant.

The rookery was not quite as easily visible in past years, but the flood took "at least 1,000 cottonwood trees, if not more," estimates Hunter. Nests were lost in the trees and swept away, but the eastern cover for the nests deeper in the grove was also lost, exposing the rookery to the wide-open creekside.

"When we developed that area of the park one of the criteria was to leave an area open for a buffer zone," Kerr reports, citing graduate research work done by Diane Voss that determined a minimum buffer of 250 meters between the rookery and park visitors. "We had that until all the trees washed out."

Along with the trees went considerable acreage from the property owners along the west side of Fountain Creek. Commercial developer Ted Beckett lost two or three acres of his land north of the KOA campground, and both Charles Durbin and Robert Smythe, who owns the KOA, also lost land. This spring found Durbin and Smythe working in the creek to reinforce their flood-damaged banks to the north while El Paso County worked to repair bridge damage to the south of the rookery. Adding to the commotion was Beckett's initial stages of development, bringing in the fill dirt to level the ground for his light industrial lots along Bandley Road. The projects each reached a peak in early March, exactly the time the male herons would return to the area.

Although the flood may fall in the category of natural factors impacting the heron habitat, Beckett is quick to point out that the reason the flood was so bad was "all of the development that's happened upstream," with new pavement robbing rainwater of the chance to seep down into the water table. He joined with the other landowners to prepare a lawsuit against the City of Colorado Springs over the loss of the acreage from the flood. "The idea of the suit was not so much for damages as it was to get them to do something about the extra runoff that caused the damage down the way." Ultimately, when it came time to put up the money for legal fees, the suit was dropped.

On the other side of the creek, there was also significant activity being undertaken, primarily on behalf of the Chilcotte Ditch Company, the association of mostly farmers who draw water from Fountain Creek from as far as 30 to 40 miles to the south. In addition to rebuilding the dam that diverts water to the ditch, the county granted Chilcotte a temporary easement to make improvements on the ditch, adding new piping to carry more water. One of the shareholders in Chilcotte Ditch is El Paso County Parks, who uses the water to supplement their supply at the Duckwood Active-use Area.

Barbara Nugent, director of El Paso County Parks and Leisure Services, is understandably eager to downplay any role the ditch work may have had on the heron departure. "I don't think singularly either one [the ditch improvements or the bank improvements] had any more impact than any of these other [factors, including the] many thousands of visitors that come to Fountain Creek Nature Center. Those were necessary improvements on a system that was aging." Unfortunately, the ditch work also reached its peak in late February and early March, the prime time for re-establishing heron nests.

"We would loved to have had that activity occur perhaps at a different time of year," she admitted. "The fact that it was February/ March may or may not have had an impact, but it couldn't have been any larger than the enormous amounts of visitors that we're seeing. But imagine those blue herons, if they've found comfort and created a rookery at the Sheraton, for God's sakes! They're adapting, and that's a good thing."

Nugent is not afraid to take maverick stances on issues that often put her head-to-head with the purist strain of some environmentalists. She knows her opinions can seem contradictory at times, stressing the adage to "leave Mother Nature alone. Let's try to reduce the impact," in one breath while defending the need to correct nature's damage in another. She defends the decision to allow work in the ditch in early March because she determined the "likelihood of the herons building nests in 2001 were slim and none," yet at other times she is adamant that the herons are not permanently gone from the nesting location. "I don't view change as loss," she asserts. "Change just is. The herons have adapted and they will continue to adapt. Critters have done that all along."


The legacy of her lineage

Refuge is not a place outside myself. Like the lone heron who walks the shores of Great Salt Lake, I am adapting as the world is adapting.

-- Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Despite the irresistible, voyeuristic fascination with the herons in their nests, I will always think of these birds as Fishing-long-legs, and my week with the great blue heron is not complete until I finally see one standing tall on bandy legs, steadfast and stoic in the main pond at the Nature Center, killer bill locked and loaded. I have been losing staring contests with these patient birds all week, so of course in the space of one last blink, I miss the rapid-fire motion in and out of the water, seeing only the result of a 16-inch fish trapped in the heron's beak. It's a large meal, requiring lengthy, if only partial, digestion, and the heron slips into the reeds for the gesture of tossing the fish into the air and landing it in its elongated gullet.

Hunter, who has watched this victory with me from the Nature Center, recalls once more the experience of dealing with all the saddened visitors to the park who are dismayed to learn the herons are no longer nesting nearby. "Their faces just drop and they look like they're going to cry. But then you say, 'The future's bright for the herons.' They're still in the area, they're still nesting, they'll probably have nesting success, they have more cover, they're still hunting here, they still have plenty of food, they have plenty of shelter there. So I think the future's bright for them. I think it's a much better deal. Yeah, it's sad because this park is a great place for people to see them nesting, but maybe that wasn't meant to be. Things just kind of have their cycles."

As evening falls I can't resist completing one more cycle of my own, returning to the rookery to watch the birds into the darkness. A couple of yellow foxes nearly run into me as I round a bend along the creek. A Canada goose watches from the shallow water of a runoff tributary. The red horse from the pasture ventures into the unkempt terrain of the cottonwood grove, secretive and stealthy, before silently returning to the field he has always preferred. What was his purpose, I wonder? And why the guilty expression?

There is peace in the presence of these great birds. Watching them flit from tree to tree, the grace of a twig pass, the black-and-white contour of outstretched wings bracing against the breeze of a fading evening sky, and the stark silhouette of spring cottonwoods. I close my eyes at the gentle flapping of wings, my mind's eye imprinted with the gift of a twig and the delicate promise of renewal.


capsule

To learn more about the great blue herons in our area, contact the

Fountain Creek Nature Center at 520-6745.

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