Gig Harbor residents are known supporters of parks, trees, open spaces and the species native to the region.
This support is why concern is being raised surrounding the proposed One Harbor Point development on the Haub property located off Soundview and Harborview Drives.
Many residents remember great blue herons nesting on the site or have spotted the birds in the area. Great blue herons are a protected species by federal law and their nests are protected under Washington state law.
To determine if the property remains an active nesting site for the herons, a study is being conducted by Soundview Consultants — an environmental consultant firm located in Gig Harbor — to determine the status of the property. The study is in cooperation with the city of Gig Harbor and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which currently lists the property as an active nesting site.
The study began in March of 2016 at the request of the landowner and is led by biologist Patti Bakker, senior scientist and environmental planner for Soundview Consultants.
The study the group created is based on a similar study to determine known nesting areas in the Portland area, Bakker said.
“It’s monthly monitoring visits to determine if herons are engaging in nesting behavior,” she said.
She noted that the WDFW does not have enough staff to continually monitor its listed active nesting sites and often rely on reports from other groups to help keep its lists updated. Because herons are sensitive to both auditory and visual surveillance, the staff have to be cautious in their study in order not to disrupt any behavior that might be taking place on the site.
The study staff have a unique advantage as well; the Soundview office is located across Harborview Drive from the property under observation.
“(The location) affords us a good opportunity to record other observations in addition to the official visits,” Bakker said.
WDFW is also participating in monitoring the site, visiting the location weekly to check for nesting behavior as well as gathering further evidence, said Michelle Tihri, who is in charge of the WDFW’s involvement with the study.
“Anywhere where a heron lands is not necessarily protected by law. What is protected by law is where herons nest,” she said. “We should know by the end of March if they’re actually using that site.”
The WDFW first became involved in evaluating the property in a meeting held May 20, 2016 that included the city of Gig Harbor and Soundview Consultants.
Bakker noted that possible nesting activity was last recorded in 2014, with no nesting activity detected in 2015 by scientists. In 2016, the first year of the official monitoring, no nesting or herons were witnessed roosting or landing near the site between March and July, though they were seen flying overhead.
The specific nesting behaviors that Bakker is watching for from the herons includes building or rebuilding nests or bringing nesting materials to the site prior to their nesting season, which takes place from January to April at the latest.
Herons are a migratory species and are more active toward September and October, when their young are able to leave the nest and the birds begin to forage for food, she added.
“Just because we see a lot of birds congregating on this site doesn’t mean they’re going to build there,” Tihri said. “Herons, by behavior, they congregate at certain times of the year.”
Bakker said that the site could have become less desirable to the herons for different reasons, including a changing food source.
“At one point there was a food source nearby that had herring pens right there at the marina,” Bakker said. “That’s a concentrated food source ...This is the last little triangle left with trees on it in that area, (and) they persisted there for several years after the herring pens went away.”
Another reason why the herons might have left is due to an increase in predatory or harassing birds.
“The increased presence of crows and eagles in the area are known to affect heron colonies,” she noted.
The study from Soundview Consultants will be completed in April, Bakker said.
“They’re not likely to start nesting in April,” she said. “They would likely be nesting already.”
A report from WDFW will be made to the city of Gig Harbor by April 30 on whether officials have determined the site to be inactive or remain an active nesting ground for the herons, Tihri said.
If herons are found to be nesting on the property, then the WDFW would recommend that the property not be developed, though it would remain up to the city of Gig Harbor to make the final decision. Tihri said that the state or federal government would only become involved if active nests are being taken down or harassed.
More information and a transcript of the meeting minutes from the May 20 meeting can be found online at oneharborpoint.com/the-property/the-heron-study.