Pentaquod, the fugitive Susquehannock had successfully escaped punishment for disagreeing with the war-like behavior of his elders in 1583, by canoeing south down the Susquehanna River, through Conowingo Falls, and into the wide open waters of the Chesapeake Bay. He had heard about the great bay but was seeing it for the first time. Having evaded his pursuers Pentaquod could now relax and drink in the majesty of the large bay, called “the great river in which fish with hard shell coverings abound” by native Americans. He chose to settle on a small uninhabited island near the mouth of the Choptank River on the Eastern Shore. Near morning he was suddenly awakened by a loud kraannk, kraannk, kraannk. Initially thinking his pursuers had finally caught him, he was relieved to see the call came from the “fishing-long-legs” flying away, a bird he had rarely seen and never heard near his home further north. Thus begins James Michener’s historic novel Chesapeake, relating Pentaquods’s story and nearly 450 years of settlement and evolution of this large estuary.
Pentaquod’s introduction to the Chesapeake and the Great Blue Heron was similar to mine 32 years ago. I was not fleeing a violent tribe but travelling to a new job with my family when we came here from the north, following the Susquehanna River from the southern tier of New York, through Pennsylvania, crossing over the Bay Bridge to the Eastern Shore and settling into a small rental farmhouse on a shallow tidal creek off the Choptank. We were not far from Pentaquod’s mythical island and saw the same tall, gawky bird perched on the end of the dock and wading through the shallow creek, and heard the same loud kraannk whenever it took flight. Someone recently asked me about a favorite bird. I never thought much about that and don’t have a specific list, but if I did, the GBH would be near the top.
You can call this bird stately and majestic, or you can call it gawky and awkward. In either case it is the largest and most widespread heron, seen at sometime in all the 48 states and in lower Alaska. It is found in all seasons in the Chesapeake region and usually visible everyday somewhere on my way to work. Familiarity can breed respect. It is a patient and flexible hunter, standing alone and perfectly still for long minutes in the shallows before uncoiling its S-shaped neck with lightning speed catching the unsuspecting fish or crustacean. Snakes, frogs, and small rodents also make up its diverse menu. I’ve seen it pose on the creek in summer heat and in the winter snows, only migrating locally when forced by a deep freeze.
The heron is usually seen alone except in breeding season when its found in a small rookery, or more correctly, a heronry. I’ve had the pleasure of observing the commotion and excitement of one of these in Venice, Florida. The guttural calls of the herons, ibises, and egrets flying in with food and the squawking fledglings fighting for their share was quite a sight and photo-op. Take-offs and landings are always a bit iffy for this large bird. The Great Blues in Florida seem more adapted to people and I can usually get close for a good shot. In the north it seems they spook more easily and make me work harder and sneak up for a good look. Staying in the car and shooting through an open window seems to work best.
The herons in flight have the easily seen S-shape neck, slow steady wing flap, and long trailing legs; some say a prehistoric or dinosaur-like appearance. This is a distinct difference from the straight neck pattern on the storks, ibises, anhinga, and flamingoes. In South Florida you may be lucky enough to see two morphs from the usual plummage. An all white morph or “Great White Heron” resembles a Great Egret but is larger, with stouter bill, and pale legs contrasting with the black legs of the egret. A cross between the Great White and Great Blue gives a Wurdemann’s Heron looking like a GBH but with a white head. I have not seen either but they are on my target list for Florida next winter.
In 1608, 25 years after Pentaquod, the English explorer John Smith proclaimed upon seeing the Bay for the first time that “heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.” I’ll second that opinion in 2015 and the familiar Great Blue Heron is one of the many avian wonders that makes that true for me.