I’m one of those people who can’t even give an injured quail a ride in the car without bonding (just a little) to the outcome. Similarly, when I’m out photographing — in those cases where I frequent a location and see the same animals repeatedly — I develop a keen interest in their well-being. For better or worse, it becomes a relationship.
I had such a relationship with this Great Blue Heron. He was a fixture at the Puget Sound beach where we first landed upon our arrival in Seattle in the fall of 2010. Overcome with homesickness for my Bay Area wetlands and shoreline photo walks, I fixated on this 15-acre parcel which, over the past 25 years, had grown from a typical family beach park into a studied piece of habitat — a successful chunk of the Northwest’s salmon habitat restoration project.
Over months of return visits, I came to know the resident Mallards and the migrating wigeon … the crows and Bald Eagles … the river otters … and even the salmon, as they fought their way up the restored creek and then spawned, leaving their carcasses, along with important conservation data.
On every visit, I’d see the heron in various states of heron life: sleeping, preening, yawning, perching, fishing, braving the winter snows, foraging in tide pools, issuing that characteristic croak as he alighted and commanded his turf from the sky.
But, in the past several months, there’s been no sign of the heron at the beach. I’ve missed his familiar silhouette, dozing in the willow tree or pretending to be camouflaged in the cattails. I’ve explored the marsh trails to see if he might be stalking fish in his favorite areas of the pond and creek — or sleeping aside the wood-duck boxes that, to date, haven’t attracted any nesting wood ducks. I’ve scanned the tide pools at low tide, but the tallest bird I’ve seen on the horizon is a gull.
I put it out of my mind, hoping that the heron was on a seasonal sojourn of some kind … like the spring pilgrimage herons make to local rookeries. But, the other day when I was out photographing ducks at the pond, I ran into a long-time resident of the area. He told me that several months ago, someone found the body of a Great Blue Heron, lying on a nearby boardwalk. They assumed it was the same heron most of us had come to know. And, since this discovery, no Great Blues have been seen at the park.
They examined the bird for any sign of trauma or injury, but none was found. Because of some complex situation with the wildlife department that I didn’t fully understand, no necropsy was done. So, we will never know how this heron died. It appears, however, that human activity was not the cause of this heron’s demise.
I was crushed to learn all of this. I wish I didn’t feel these losses as deeply as I do. I always say that “relationships” with wild animals are tenuous at best, considering the rough existence that constitutes wildness. But each animal that’s brought me greater understanding and compassion for his or her kind, lives on in my memory, my imagery and in my consciousness as reminder of what we all fight to protect on this earth.
My photographic homage to a Great Heron … a Great Blue one.