Kissed by the Wing of a Heron

Yesterday, my collie and I walked down to the creek and surprised a huge great blue heron, who happily fished from the same downed tree we have observed the turtles from this year. Until the recent heavy rains of Hannah, the creek level was so slow and sluggish that the Little Wappinger was almost flowing the other way, becoming stagnant and collecting brown foam, fallen leaves, and pollen. The fish, what little there appeared to be summer, seemed to all but disappear.

There are two paths to the creek to choose from and had I approached from the north, I might have observed the heron mostly unnoticed. I was once told that if I got a dog, my wildlife experiences would lessen. Although the many wonderful encounters with various species do continue, the dog is enough to make the sightings a little more brief.

Whenever I see a heron (and there is always only one), I can't help but wonder if it is the same bird I have seen at our creek over the years. But this one was much bigger than the individual that has visited in the past. His wingspan was almost six feet across! His plumage was brighter, which suggests maturity.

Herons fish and hunt in two ways. One method is standing motionless, waiting for a fish to swim by. The other is by wading. Herons eat fish, frogs, crustaceans, moles, snakes, and even some plant life. Our little section of the creek is a feeding Mecca for the heron as well as the owls who visit to feast on the many frogs thriving in the shallow pools. I was astounded to learn that most young herons do not have a great survival rate, and die off in the first two years. There is a documented case, however, of one bird living for 23 years.

Herons nest in a group called a heronry. A great place to view these nests is right off the Taconic Parkway, just near the James Baird Park. Looking off to one side, the nests will become more visible as the leaves fall in the autumn. The birds look so haughty and intriguing. They also nest alongside cliffs, and sometimes on the ground. I am always fascinated to see them fly. Although they appear to fly in slow motion, they can travel about 19-23 mph. They are so non-assuming, and look so prehistoric!

This encounter reminded me of the very first time a magical experience happened in our backyard, down by the creek. It was the year we first moved here, and that summer we spent traveling to music festivals selling our vintage clothing, dance and performance apparel. We had just returned from the “Great Blue Heron” Festival in Jamestown, New York, which is just about as far west as you can get before reaching the Ohio border. It was a long ride. We had never vended before at this event, were very well received, and made a good amount of money for our hard work. We were jubilant not only at our success but more due to the wonderful folks we met along the way, the fantastic music, and the gracious lady who organized and hosted the Festival on her farm in Amish country.

After our long trip back, the first thing we did was run down to the creek. It is always a grounding and peaceful place to be after having been among about 8,000 people. We let the tranquility and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks enter every fiber of our being. Ahhhh, home!

I leaned against the north facing side of a huge tree just below the falls. Will leaned in to give me a hug, as we sighed, happy with our success, glad to be home again. In that moment of embrace, unbeknownst to us, a great blue heron was flying upstream toward us, from the other side of the tree. In that moment his wing brushed by my ear. To this day, I can remember the faint movement of the air from his wing against the side of my face. He never spooked or altered his course. Whoa! We knew we were onto something here, that this place was sacred, and we wanted to live here forever.

I wrote to the gal who promoted the festival to tell her of our profound experience. She very wisely told me, “Yep, whenever you see one, you know where you are supposed to be!” Now, looking back, that seemed like a lifetime ago.

We look this time of year to say our goodbyes: to summer, to fishing, and to the many animals and birds that will not return until spring. We will brace for the harshness of winter and heating our homes. As the blaze of glorious autumn is rapidly approaching, we will stay cozy in our own nests. I will look forward to creatures of the night, tales of spooky animals, change, renewal, and rebirth.

Pat Laine is an 8 year resident of Clinton. She owns and operates Little Creek Therapeutic Massage. She shares her home with her husband and their Maine Coon cat and collie dog. Whether walking in the woods, or from their vantage point overlooking Little Wappingers Creek and its environs, they observe the miracles of wildlife and plant life on a daily basis.

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