Early October is an exciting time to explore nature’s way and enjoy the crisp days of autumn in Oakland County, or wherever your travels may take you as the kaleidoscope of leaf colors unfolds. It’s the season to embrace the quickening pace of nature as days shorten, leaves cascade downwards and mosquitoes vanish. If you walk slowly, stop often, look and listen, and keep your eyes scanning, every twist and turn on a trail brings discoveries even if it’s a trail you trek frequently.
A few weeks ago I was on one of my usual slow-paced nature-embracing solo treks around Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park. The park is only a few miles from me, and it has been my go-to location if I feel the desire to get outside and meander without driving very far. I usually walk around that lake several times a week with no particular goal in my mind, beyond a wish to be outside.
No matter where I go, be it any local park, or perhaps an autumn adventure at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, my small day pack is with me. That pack holds a light jacket, bug repellent, water, compass and matches secured away inside, and of course my camera. Should you wonder, you certainly do not need a compass or any survival equipment to walk around Crooked Lake, but the pack is in my car for unexpected or hastily planned adventures elsewhere. My camera is also stowed away in the pack, and I am very glad it was, for that’s where this tale of a Green Heron hideaway begins, after I photographed a watchful chipmunk.
Independence Oaks County Park has excellent habitat for many species of birds, including Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets. For those that are unsure what a Great Egret looks like, just imagine a pure white colored Great Blue Heron. Green Herons also feed at Independence Oaks and perhaps nest there in a location unknown to me.
If you are not sure what a Green Heron looks like, you are not alone. It’s a lesser-known heron that often goes unrecognized by many nature lovers who are not also avid birders. Green herons are stocky-looking birds and they are significantly smaller than great blue herons and egrets. They also have relatively short legs and thick short necks that appear to be drawn up against their bodies. Other notable features include broad, rounded wings and a rather noticeable daggerlike bill. The bill is not used to stab fish, their primary prey, but functions more like needle nose pliers that can grab onto a frog or a fish.
Just as I approached the south end of Crooked Lake, I heard a splash and then a few seconds later some faint sounds that sounded like clucking. I went into my investigative mode and noticed ripples in the water and movement on a log at the wetland just south of the trail. A small stocky-looking bird was strutting on a log adjacent that jutted out into the water. It took a moment for me to recognize it as Green Heron.
I realized my location was perfect for observation, almost like a front center row in a theater. Having the “perfect seat” I knelt on the edge of the trail to watch the show and what a grand show it was. The bad news is that when the Green Heron would plunge into the water to catch a fish, I was not fast enough to get a good photo of that action, and my view of the plunge was partially obstructed since it plunged on the far side of the log. The good news is that the Green Heron often seemed posed and preened for my viewing pleasure as it waited for another fish to approach its hunting perch.
Other trail users noticed me positioned at the edge of the trail with my camera and asked what I was watching. I was pleased to be able to point out the Green Heron to some who asked what I was watching and one trail user then pointed out to me a rather hefty-looking northern water snake just a few yards from me that perhaps was waiting to grab a fish or a frog. With both the Green Heron and snake present this location was obviously a good place for dinner. For the next 20 minutes or so I stayed in place at the edge of the trail watching the heron; and I was not disappointed with the show.
After returning home with about a dozen good images I did a bit of online research on Green Herons. Here are two of my favorite information tidbits quoted in full from the Audubon Society that may add to your viewing pleasure if you should see “my” Green Heron at Independence Oaks or a Green Heron anywhere during your October adventures.
“Forages mostly by standing still or stalking very slowly at the edge of shallow water, waiting for prey to approach. Sometimes uses ‘bait,’ dropping feathers or small twigs on the surface of the water to lure fish within striking distance.”
“Along quiet streams or shaded riverbanks, a lone Green Heron may flush ahead of the observer, crying ‘kyow’ as it flies up the creek. This small heron is solitary in most seasons and often secretive, living around small bodies of water or densely vegetated areas. Seen in the open, it often flicks its tail nervously and raises and lowers its crest. The ‘green’ on this bird’s back is an iridescent color, and often looks dull bluish or simply dark.”
Today is another beautiful and crisp autumn day, so it’s time for me to stop writing and head off to my Green Heron hideaway with the words of John Muir in my mind, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” They become true on so many outdoor adventures and for that I am grateful.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.