Great blue herons returning

Once decimated by eagles, herons make a comeback at Beacon Hill Park

Fred Hook

The awkward, squawking great blue herons are back, and Fred Hook couldn’t be happier.

“We’re really lucky we’ve had them over the years,” Hook said of the winged ruckus-makers. “We were really devastated when they left and were absolutely thrilled when they came back. It’s a real privilege to have them so close to downtown.”

Hook, an environmental technician with the city’s parks department, has been monitoring the heronry in Beacon Hill Park since the mid 1980s. There are 15 pairs of the long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked birds nesting in three tall pine trees just north of Goodacre Lake, near the stone bridge. But lately the birds’ presence has been something for which birders have had to cross their fingers.

For almost 25 years, a pair of eagles nested near the heronry, closer to the children’s park. By protecting his own territory, the male inadvertently kept other eagles away from the heronry. In 2007, “the male died, or disappeared, anyway,” Hook said.

As a result, a convocation of eagles took to the park.

“The (new) eagles came in and basically cleaned the (heron) colony out,” Hook said. “They ate all the eggs and cleaned out all the chicks and the herons picked up and left.”

Last year, the long-time female eagle resident of the park took a new mate. The eagles don’t purposefully protect the great blue herons in Beacon Hill Park, Hook explained, but by patrolling their own territory, have a guarding effect on the lanky birds.

Thus, the herons returned – nine pairs. They didn’t nest until late June (February is more normal) and birdwatchers were concerned the chicks wouldn’t survive.

But they did and this year the return is a moderate 15 pairs – nothing like the more than 100 pairs that once called the area home.

“The herons started to return to the pine trees on … Jan. 22,” said Rhiannon Hamdi, a self-proclaimed “heronphile.” “Last year was their first year in that location and they seem to be thriving in it. Of course, it is not as densely populated as their old heronry on the south side of the lake, but it is growing. They had approximately seven to 10 nests last year, which produced at least 20 youngsters to fledge. This was a great improvement over previous years as they were able to escape the attentions of the resident eagle, Birdzilla.”

This time of year is important for protecting herons, Hook said..

“They’re having to do a lot of work to feed and maintain those chicks. This is kind of the most critical point to leave them alone.”

The adult herons fish during low tides and in tidal flats off the shore and their chicks will join them in the hunt in August. They’ll stay until about September, when they’ll take to more lucrative feeding grounds up-Island and in the Gulf Islands.

“People should definitely come out to see the herons but remember to remain a respectful distance from any wild bird and to try to be quiet in the vicinity of the heronry,” Hamdi said. “They provide a delightful opportunity for people to experience wildlife in an urban setting, but we do need to respect them and let them have their space.”

ecardone@vicnews.com

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