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WINTER RESIDENCE : The Great Blue heron on Dorchester Bay

When it gets this cold I begin to wonder about all the birds that don’t fly south for the winter. In particular, I wonder about the Great Blue heron that I had seen so often around the shore here last summer and fall.

The Great Blue heron is a wading bird found in coastal regions and wetlands throughout North America. The Great Blue really is blue, and it’s quite startling to encounter one for the first time. It is large, with long legs, a long neck, and a tiny head; it also has a long beak that works like a set of chopsticks. A fully mature Great Blue stands four-and-a-half feet tall, and can weigh up to eight pounds.

Dorchester is situated on the coast. We tend to forget this fact because we have set up a few blocks inland and are daily engrossed in city life. Nevertheless, regular riders of the T get to see the Atlantic Ocean in all its glory every time they travel between the Savin Hill and Fields Corner subway stations. At one time, Dorchester Harbor was much larger and more active in marine commerce, but today little of the original boundaries remain. As the crow flies, it is a distance of less than three miles from Carson Beach to Pope John Paul II Park.

I first sighted a Great Blue in Patton’s Cove about fifteen years ago. I don’t recall ever seeing one there when I was a boy. The fact is, Great Blues have been building larger numbers for more than a 100 years in New England, but the population took a dip for a while, and then rebounded again over the last several decades. The return of the Great Blue was made possible by an unusual alliance with another water-loving animal, the beaver, and our Democratic system.

In 1996, Massachusetts voters approved the ballot known as “Question One,” which prohibited the use of traps for capturing fur-bearing animals, including beavers. In the years following passage of this referendum, the beaver population increased dramatically. Protecting beavers has led to the creation of habitats tailor-made for herons because beavers build dams that produce wetlands. Herons nest on top of a dam to catch heat given off by the beavers lodged below, and the dam, raised high above water level, is like a castle surrounded by a giant moat. When the dam gets too crowded, the heron flies away, sometimes right here to Dorchester Bay.

The Great Blue is a solitary feeder, moving slowly among the grasses, stalking its prey in the shallow water. Around here, the Great Blue is particularly active during the hours just before and after high tide. Our shoreline is the Great Blue’s equivalent of a Star Market, where fish, small frogs, and insects are abundant. When fishing, the Great Blue plods along slowly, with its neck fully extended, scanning the water below. If movement is detected, the heron ratchets its head to a 90-degree angle, presenting one eye parallel to the water’s surface, and then locks onto the prey.

The neck of the Great Blue swivels as the eye homes in and is drawn downward like a magnet. In a flash, the Great Blue snaps forward, drives its beak into the water, and grabs the fish. The Great Blue never fails. Once the fish is caught, the heron lifts it to the sky, holds it there a moment as if in thanks, and then lets go, dropping the fish neatly down its throat. A quick twirl of the neck facilitates digestion and sends the meal into the stomach.

The eyes of a Great Blue are set into the sides of its head, so that to see forward, it must turn sideways. When you walk by a Great Blue, it observes you one eye at a time, rotating its head from one side to the other as you pass. If disturbed, the heron will call out and glide away. The Great Blue doesn’t shoot straight up like a rocket, as the cormorant does; it needs time and a long runway to beat its powerful wings, and climbs gradually, like a 747 airliner.

One summer evening, I crossed paths with a Great Blue under the light of a full moon. I stopped and it rose before me, making a loud squawk. Looking up, I saw the outline of the Great Blue, looming huge and dark against the night sky. With twisted head and wings spread six feet wide in flight, it appeared like some sort of strange prehistoric thing – and I suddenly realized how long a time the Great Blue heron has been around.

The last time I saw a Great Blue was on a morning in December. It was standing at the edge of an expanse of reeds laid low by the icy flood tide. In the freezing wind, it seemed to be contracting its entire body into the space of an atom. The neck, usually long and supple, became a tightly coiled “S” shape that was adorned with what looked like a fluffy scarf (the feathers of a heron’s neck are normally skintight, but in extreme conditions, these feathers are lifted slightly, creating a ruff that traps precious body heat).

A few hours later the heron was still there, in the same exact posture, like a blue snowman. Though motionless, it could never have been mistaken for a lawn ornament. I sensed that somewhere deep and silent, a sentient being was residing. I marveled at its patience and ability to endure. I thought of that Great Blue often in the days and weeks that followed, but now months have gone by, and I am curious as to where it could be.

I heard about a Great Blue out on Jamaica Pond, hunkered down for the winter. Is this our neighbor from Dorchester Bay? If so, what route did it take to get from here to JP? Right now, I am waiting for next spring and the return of the Great Blue heron. Will it be the same Great Blue as last year, or will it be a different one? I don’t know – I cannot tell. Maybe I will know, if when I see one, I stop for a while, and watch.

With special thanks to Mary Lou Kaufman.

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James Hobin’s “Around Dot” column will appear monthly in the Dorchester Reporter.