It's hard times for celebrity blue herons

Bird documentary concludes with a calamity, naturally

Posted: Monday, July 04, 2005

The crime was captured on a videotape.

The time was 2:19 p.m., June 14. The suspect was a bold bald eagle.

Four blue heron chicks sat in a nest. The eagle swooped down, spread its talons and snatched three of them. The one chick left behind hunched at one corner of the empty nest.

The oldest chick's life was cut short at three weeks.

Skip Gray, who has been videotaping the blue herons since March, has viewed the footage in slow motion several times since June 14.

"If the camera could record sound, we probably could hear the chicks scream," said Gray, chief videographer of KTOO-FM and TV.

Gray started taking pictures of the blue herons on Calhoun Avenue seven years ago. His friend, Caleb Stewart, told him that blue herons had been nesting behind his father's house.

But Gray didn't document the birds throughout the nesting season until this spring. His department bought a high-definition video camera a year ago. He wanted to learn how to use it.

"I am always interested in observing animals in great detail," Gray said.

To prepare for his project, Gray climbed up to an 85-foot-high spruce to study the site. He trimmed a few small branches to get a better view of the nest. He set up a mini-control room at the entry way of Tom Stewart's house. He hooked a spy camera to a monitor and a VHS recorder in the control room. He mounted two tripods to support the high-definition camera. He could zoom in and out with a remote control.

"The spy camera doesn't have good quality," Gray said. "I wanted to learn what they did up there as much as I could before I used the high-definition camera."

The videotape can record up to six hours.

For two months, Gray watched the reality shows of the blue herons' family life.

Throughout the process, the adults spent a lot of time building the nest. One bird fetched a branch back to the nest and the bird in the nest took over the branch and wove it in the nest. The adults continued strengthening the nest even after the eggs were laid.

The birds started mating in early April. One session of footage showed the birds' failed attempts and successes.

On April 26, the blue herons laid two eggs. They eventually had seven eggs. The adults took turns hatching the eggs.

When the first baby hatched out, Gray said he didn't realize it was a chick. "I thought it was a little leaf flopping in the breeze," he said.

A total of five birds hatched but not all of them survived. When one adult noticed that a 2-day-old chick didn't move, it at first prodded the chick tenderly with its beak and continued prodding it with more urgency. When the chick remained motionless, the adult tossed the chick out of the nest.

The four siblings didn't always get along. The furry balls pecked one another and fought over food. The oldest chick always got the biggest piece and once swallowed a whole Dolly Varden nearly as long as it was.

The blue herons had become a neighborhood phenomenon. Tom Stewart put two chairs in the entry of his house so people could sit there and watch the birds on the monitor. Gray, who had more free time after the legislative session was over in May, planned to spend more time taking footage with his high-definition camera. He was also considering applying for a grant next year so he could observe the birds full-time during the next nesting season.

But Gray's project came to an abrupt end.

In the afternoon of June 14, Stewart called Gray at work, telling him that there was only one chick showing on the monitor. Gray rushed to Stewart's house, rewound the video and found out what had happened.

Gray said it was clear that the adult that was in the nest when the eagle struck tried to protect the chicks.

"It spread its wings over the chicks in a defensive posture and stayed with them until the last second before the eagle snatched the chicks," Gray said. "It fled the nest at a split second before the eagle took away the chicks. It was unclear whether it fled to save its own life or tried to defend the chicks because we could not see what happened outside the frame of the video."

Gray said he was shocked for the whole afternoon.

The adult blue herons returned to the nest 30 minutes later. The next morning around 4:15, an eagle took away the last chick. Stewart said his granddaughter heard birds screaming frantically when the eagle attacked the nest. When they woke up in the morning and turned on the monitor, the last chick was gone.

Gray said he was mad at the eagle at first but his anger died down.

"The eagle probably got the chicks to feed its own chicks," Gray said. "It was just doing what eagles do."

Gray said he is unsure whether the blue herons will come back next year. Although there are still six blue heron nests in the neighborhood, none of them is as accessible as the one he had been shooting. But Gray said it has been an interesting, educational and inspirational experience.

"I am amazed by the dedication of these birds as a family and to each other," Gray said.

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