Dream of flying: I never had one. The closest I have come is a sweet dream of riding on the wings of a giant bird in the midst of a migrating flock. The dream was so real I could feel the powerful muscles of the wings move underneath me. It was sunset. I didn’t know where we were going, had no fear; just felt that present time of movement, power and joy.
And here they have all assembled.
Location: W. 9th, a pleasant through street, in an area of “low income” housing. A few hundred yards from Santa Rosa Creek, which is not visible from there. Close to Lincoln Elementary School, which every year saves a day for the Audubon Society to come, show films and walk down the street with the kids to see the 4 species of egrets that nest together in the two tall eucalyptus in the median strip of W. 9th for the months of April and May. The Madrone Audubon Society, in conjunction with the city, places orange fences around the median strips and scatters hay within them, so when the babies fall, they are cushioned. An Audubon member says that several people drive past to watch out for fallen babies each day, among them, a bus driver. If they see a baby on the ground, they take it to bird rescue, which will rehabilitate and tag it to see if it eventually returns to the original area. The idea is to release these rehabilitated egrets into the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a large protected area, where cormorants and herons already breed, in hopes that they will find a more suitable place to live than in aging trees on a downtown city street.
When you look at the trees, you see first the bright white Great Egrets, the largest birds, which, oddly, nest at the very top; then gradually the smaller egrets; finally the Black-Crowned Night Herons, colors closest to the intensity and pattern of the trees, bark, leaves. The Snowy Egrets spread and shake out their delicate plumes, like a sudden puff of snow. From a distance, the trees are spotted with large white dots.
Cicconoformes, (stork in Latin) include cranes, storks, ibises, bitterns, egrets, herons, spoonbills. The name egret and the name heron are sometimes interchangeable.
Ardea alba (White Heron), Great Egret: According to the Cornell bird app, “Great Egrets have a yellow, dagger-like bill, long black legs, and are the largest of the egrets/herons with a 6 foot wing span. They fly slowly but powerfully: with just two wingbeats per second, their cruising speed is around 25 miles an hour.” The oldest known Great Egret was 22 years, 10 months old and was banded in Ohio. Some say Great Egrets are the white version of the Blue Heron.
Egretta Thula (Thule), Snowy Egret:
Adults have black legs, yellow feet, black bill. They are about 2 feet tall. The lores near the bills change color to red, and head, neck and scapular plumes appear in breeding season.
Bubulcus ibis (herdsman), Cattle Egret: stout yellow bill, reddish patches on body during breeding season, and smaller than Snowy Egret, they hail from Africa via South America and now North America. The standard photo is of one of them standing on the back of a cow, picking off the ticks and other insects.
Nycticorax nycticorax (Greek for night raven) Black-Crowned Night Heron: born nidiculous, naked, without feathers. Pale gray, with a black bill and cap; smaller, stockier than the other egrets.
From the trees: Warbling, cooing, gobbling, chittering, honking, squawking, gargling, cheeping, beeps, Donald Duck noises, alarms, squabbles, scoldings, greetings.
Egrets go back to same nests each year; all through the breeding period they repair and rebuild; males bring the twigs, which can be very large, and both sexes build. Nests can reach 5 ft. across. Egrets are seasonally monogamous and have 3-5 eggs, one brood a year. The fledglings can fly short distances at 2 weeks or 8 weeks, depending on species. Or not. Last year the Audubon Society picked up 124 fallen chicks for rehabilitation. They are also in danger from eagles and hawks.
During the mating season, the Great and Snowy egrets’ bills, feet and lores change color; the Cattle Egret gets reddish patches on head and chest, and all species develop plumes.
More than 95 percent of the Great Egrets in North America were killed for their plumes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Great, and especially Snowy Egrets, “Owing to the merciless slaughter to which they have been subjected,” were “woefully decimated” according to my online 1915 bird book (published when even the passenger pigeons and the whooping cranes still existed) because of the demand for decoration for ladies’ hats and soldiers’ aigrettes (the plume on the cap) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. David Sibley says with more emphasis, if less emotion, that they were “reduced almost to extinction,” and that the slaughter spearheaded the creation of the Audubon Society. The Great Egret is, in fact, the symbol of the Audubon Society. “Plume-hunting was banned, for the most part, around 1910, and Great Egret populations quickly began to recover. Since the 1930s, the egrets have had to contend with major habitat loss and degradation, as well as threats like contaminated runoff from farm fields or sewage treatment. However, their populations appear stable.”
Night herons were at one time almost decimated by DDT. “As with many bird species, the pesticide DDT caused reduced clutch size and lower productivity due to the breakage of thinned-shelled eggs. As an example, “The black-crowned night-heron population in New Jersey declined from about 1,500 individuals in the late 1970s to only 200 in the late 1990s, nearly a 90% loss, despite a ban of DDT in the United States in 1972. “ Recent reports show that habitat degradation is still a major concern, but that some populations are increasing.
Egretta Thula. According to the OED: Thule, the most northerly region in the world: the fortunate islands Sir T. Herbert (1667) near Ultima thule commentator upon Horace. 1730 Thomson Autumn Where the northern ocean boils round the naked melancholy isles of farthest thule. An Eskimo culture stretching from Alaska to Greenland circa ad 500–1400.
The extreme limit of travel and discovery; hence the highest or uttermost point or degree attained or attainable, the acme, limit.
Not everything that is beautiful must be possessed. Having something in the present, as in looking, listening; or having something in the memory. No plumes. And yet I am writing about them, taking pictures of them, trying to sketch them, to keep them.
(egret) aigrette (feather) of the aigrette, dried head of dandelion seed,
the aigrette around the moon.
The way the neck folds up in flight, the curve the simple origami crane can’t duplicate. The bend in the neck is the spine and the esophagus is wound behind it for protection. The bend makes the egret able to strike quickly to catch fish, frogs and other small animals for food.
I sit on the bench at the bus stop, watching the birds. Or I walk under the trees. I’m like my mother, a caricature of bird watcher, wearing unflattering hat and binoculars. We made such fun of her, but I know her better now in this atmosphere, this habitat, this bird world.
People speed down 9th, ignoring the school zone (Slow when children are present) and the egret breeding season. Complain of the bird poop, the smell. Yes. But you can learn to love it, that sharp aviary smell without the cage, without the bleach, in the open air.
Dream of flying: I never had one.
Nycticorax nycticorax, born nidiculous
in the fortunate islands where the northern ocean boils,
round the naked melancholy isles
of farthest Thule.
Not everything that is beautiful must be possessed.
(egret) aigrette (feather) of the aigrette, dried head of dandelion seed
aigrette around the moon
The way the neck folds up in flight, the curve
in the open air.
Photo credits: Great Egret with twig, Madrone Audubon Society website
Egret page in The Bird Book, Chester A. Reed, 1915, found on Google Book Search.
Cranes, Hiroshige, risdmuseum.org
All other photos by author.
Citations and information:
The Cornell Lab Merlin Bird ID app.
Madrone Audubon Society http://www.madroneaudubon.org/
Reed, Chester A. The Bird Book. Doubleday, Page and Company. Garden City, New York. 1915
Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. 2001 Alfred A. Knopf, New York.