Community Columns

Of herons and hummingbirds

The ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest is made of plant down held together with spider webs and covered with lichens. It’s only a little larger than a golf ball and the eggs are the size of large peas.

Spending more time indoors these days, with the high temperatures, we decided to pull out some old photograph albums and stories we haven’t looked at or read in years. What fun! All those things we thought we remembered we really only half remembered. How we laughed about grand old times with family and friends.

I thought it might be fun to share one of the stories we found from 1957 when we had been experiencing summer heat similar to what we have been having this year. I was photographing some herons in a place in Riverhead called Indian Island, which was purchased by the county in 1963 and is today the Indian Island County Park. It’s interesting to see how much has changed over the years: properties, cameras, film, equipment, etc. Here’s the story:

June 10, 1957 — Visited the heron colony I found in Riverhead. It is situated on the land just to the east of Hallock Warner’s duck farm. The place is called Indian Island. I found this place last year when I drove through the back roads and found an orphaned young heron walking up the road. It was the key to a heron colony. It was late in the season and most of the young had gone. So there was no picture taking.

This year I got there early and found them in full nesting (on the 10th). I immediately set out to photograph the colony. I took two 20-foot extension ladders and peaked them, then covered the top with burlap. A 2 x 6 was then put across the rungs about seven feet down and it was on this that I stood with my camera clamped to one of the rungs of the ladder.

Rather cramped quarters, I can assure you, and oh, so hot! My shoulders could hardly get across the area it was so tight. I tried three times to photograph this one nest of night herons, but to no avail. As a matter of fact, by my third visit something had taken the young. My, these birds are wary.

The nests are in scrub pine about 20 feet up, the usual stick affair. Some of the nests are so flimsy you can see the eggs right through them.

On the second trip to the blind I saw a yellow-crowned night heron, a rarity around here, and on my third trip there Larry Penny and I both saw it. As a matter of fact, we traced it to a pine that we both thought it was nesting in. I was sure when I saw the droppings. They are not the white wash of the night heron, but matted affairs of shell and crab. Also when we looked into the nest of four eggs they were a different shade of green-blue.

So I decided to move the blind here and try it. After leaving the blind up there for about three days I tried it again in the blind — nothing. The bird would not come around with me in the blind. Seeing I had only one telephoto 180 mm f 5.6, it was difficult. So as not to chase the bird away, I left, but first I added more cover so that the next time I came in there would be no chance of our yellow-crowned seeing me.

On the next try I had better luck; the bird came after about an hour of stalking around, then lit in a nearby tree. From there on I kept shooting every chance I had. Then I got out and went home, but what a disappointment I had coming. The film did not wind in the camera. All my work was of no avail. So next day up at 6 a.m. and off to the blind. I had to work in the early morning because of the terrific heat we were having — 93 degrees today. This time I had another disappointment. After the first shot (the bird came right to the nest this time), more disappointment — the film would not wind up. It jammed. So, while Mrs. Yellow-Crown looked on with the icy look that only a heron can give, I took the back off and rewound my film, spoiling part and starting all over.

But it was all worth it, for I watched the bird perform the household duties of cleaning a nest. She tossed out half an egg shell and then commenced to pick up objects in the nest. I could not tell what they were. Perhaps some regurgitated food she left when scared off the nest. Or could it be droppings? I doubt it, for the bird actually took them in her bill and downed them. The young are still hatching out today. The 17th of June. I’ll keep a close watch and see what comes of this crew. Dennis (Puleston) and Gil Raynor are coming over to band them Saturday, so we’ll see them again on the weekend.

While walking around I found a sort of second half of the black-crowned night heron colony. This group with nests are in big oak trees right alongside the scrub pine area. I’m sure there must be a total of about 50 to 70 nesting birds here — both sections included. The latter nests are in oak 30 feet up.

I also came across a hummingbird’s nest. Took pictures but on my return found something had taken the two eggs. How disappointing it was, for I always wanted to get that family group. What a perfect piece of work the nest is, and what camouflage with lichens attached to the side.