Letters to Montana

Lessons in Landscape, History and Imagination

Posts from the ‘Naturalist Notes’ category


After living in the same community for nearly 20 years, there are faces I recognize simply because we have the same haunts. Perhaps we’ve never exchanged names, but we share the same vicinity frequently enough to find comfort in each other’s presence. Some of these folks tend to show up only at certain times of the year. So, when they start turning up again (or maybe I am the one turning up?) I know the season has changed.

I can say this about a bunch of homo sapiens, and one heron.  A Great Blue Heron. No, I can’t say that he/she finds comfort in my presence, or even that he/she recognizes me, but I can say that we haunt the same creek all winter, each winter, and this bird always helps me to remember resilience.

Am I sure it’s the same bird? No. Not sure. But I suspect that is the case.

I don’t need to know his/her name (and probably couldn’t pronounce it). But, year after year, this particular individual reminds me that I’ve survived another one. Year after year, I am awed by the beauty of this bird. Each time, this bird strikes me with a commitment to stillness that only comes with absolute presence. Or when I observe this heron in flight, I can only think of blood pumping slowly and steadily through our bodies, warm, full of breath.

This year, the winter has been true: ample temps below zero and snow on the ground for months. This year, the winter continues to hold us in her grasp, waltzing carelessly between spring temps and fits of snowstorms. And, the heron waits, as if across millennia, feet in frigid water, gleaming eye, looking clear through me.

Migration and Territory:

Great Blue Herons tend to migrate out of the northern edge of their breeding ranges in the winter. Some take a trip to the Caribbean (that sounds really nice, about now). However, in this little pocket of Montana, herons are known to stay year-round.

Herons only tend to congregate when they are breeding and sometimes during migration. They might also throw a party at a fish farm. They forage alone and defend their feeding territories with grand displays that involve impressive wingspans and spear-like bills pointed skyward. If you’ve ever seen this, it’s easy to forget that these birds weigh a mere 5 or 6 pounds.

Gender Differences:

You probably noticed I refer to my heron friend as he/she. Males and females are very similar in appearance. Yes, males are larger, in general, but who can tell when you are looking at one bird? Just sayin.’

Cool Stuff:

Just take a look at this bird! What isn’t cool about it?

Wait, is that a pterodactyl?

I swear, when I look at a Great Blue Heron, I am transported back to the Cretaceous Period. (Yeah, I’ve been there . . . you?) It’s true, scientists believe that all birds are avian dinosaurs, but herons have a particularly dinosaur-like appearance and stature. Those eyes, those legs, those claws . . . that deadly bill!

Or a rock star?

Great Blue Herons also have specialized feathers on their chest that give them that fashionably unkempt look. The feathers continually grow and fray and they comb them down with their fringed claws to help remove fish slime and oils.

Maybe it is lightning, disguised as a bird.

If you’ve seen one close up, you’ve likely noticed how darn good they are at standing still. Don’t even try to tell me you’ve seen one catch its prey. They are faster than the human eye. Okay, not that fast, but they ARE really fast.






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