You really don’t get a sense of how big a great blue heron is when you watch one stalking food in the shallows of the Puyallup River, the Nisqually River estuary or a Puget Sound tideflat.
Adults stand 4 feet tall, but their thin bodies and feathers, and stork-like legs make them look smaller.
It is when they spread their wings that stretch 6 feet across that one can appreciate just how big they are.
That’s how Stan Chichinski feels when he talks about the feathered neighbors that live in a grove of cottonwood trees behind his home near Pioneer Way. The stand of trees is home to a heron rookery with as many as 70 adult herons calling it home each spring.
It is just one of a number of rookeries in South Sound that provide nesting locations for the birds and viewing opportunities for birders.
“They’re very impressive, their size. They almost look like pterodactyls,” Chichinski said.
Chichinski has enjoyed the herons since moving in five years ago. But the rookery has been there for about 10 years, said Puyallup birder Ed Pullen.
The advantage of this particular rookery is its accessibility.
“A lot of (rookeries) are far away. Here, you can just pull off the road. They’re less than 100 yards away,” Pullen said. The nests and birds can been seen by pulling off Pioneer Way about a quarter mile west of 44th Avenue East.
On a recent sunny afternoon, I watched as individual adults returned to their nests after searching for food. High in the tree tops, some 40 to 50 feet off the ground, large nests swayed in the afternoon breeze. Next to some nests, a lone adult stood. In another, one adult sat on the nest while the other appeared to be dozing.
A constant chatter filled the air, turning to squawks when a hawk wheeled overhead.
Pullen admits that herons are not prized sightings among avid birders, but he still marvels each time he sees one atop a nest.
“Great blue heron are pretty easy to see, but it’s still pretty cool to see them,” he said.
An interesting aspect of this rookery is its proximity to a bald eagle nest in a tree just down Pioneer Way.
“The eagles will feed on fledgings,” Pullen said. “They grow up to be big enough to be a snack and the eagles fly down and have their way.”
Diane Yorgason-Quinn, a member of the Tahoma Audubon Society, said there was an active rookery near her Purdy home on Burley Lagoon with more than 30 nests. She said the spot was decimated four years ago by eagle predation and the herons have never returned.
Lacey resident Phil Kelley is an avid birder and leads weekly walks at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
“It’s kind of the emblem of the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge,” he said of the heron. “They’re a pretty decent indicator you have a decent ecosystem. There has to be food sources, clean water and places for them to roost.”
He said you can often find them in the same locations.
“They tend to be pretty reliable in an area. If you see one today, there’s a good chance you’ll see one or more tomorrow, next week, next month,” Kelley said.
“Herons also don’t migrate. When it’s time to mate, they gather in these nesting areas, the rookeries,” he added.
An admitted non-birder, Chichinski said he’s amazed the herons are willing to nest amid the urban hubbub of passing trains, planes flying overhead and traffic in the area.
“But the whole area is rife with wildlife. We have red-tailed hawks, the eagles, coyotes, deer, skunks,” he said. “It’s like living in the country, but you’re only 15 minutes from downtown.”
GO SEE HERONS
Dumas Bay Park: Follow the interpretive signs that lead to the nesting areas in the small park’s greenbelts. Located at 30844 44th Ave. S.W., Federal Way, just off Southwest Dash Point Road.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: If you walk the Nisqually Estuary Trail, you can often see heron feeding and resting amid the restored wetlands. Located off Interstate 5 at Exit 114. www.fws.gov/nisqually
Woodard Bay Natural Resource Conservation Area: This wildlife sanctuary is one of the most important heron rookeries in Washington. The three trails there may be seasonally closed to protect nesting heron and eagles. Located north of Olympia and Lacey off Woodard Bay Road. www.dnr.wa.gov
Heron nesting season is mid-February to late July.
Keep your distance. Getting too close to the nest will disturb the birds. Studies have shown that human disturbance during the breeding season can cause adult herons to abandon the entire rookery.
Bring your binoculars. This is the best way to see the birds up close and still maintain a safe distance.