The Great Blue Heron flew past us on slow beats of its powerful wings. It was not the usual sight for winter, but nothing was usual about that morning. The temperature was a balmy 55 degrees, even at 8 in the morning. We got up early to search for River Otters, but the heron flew over as we were watching a family of deer walk silently by on the other side of a small pond.
Blue herons are not a common winter bird, but there are a few that always spend the winter in the area. They lurk where the water doesn’t freeze: where water moves in creeks and streams, in ditches and in springs where warm water seeps out of the ground at a balmy 50 degrees year-round.
These unfrozen places are full of treats. There are fish to eat, of course, but also the frogs lying quietly on the mud, waiting for spring. Tadpoles from Bull Frogs and Green Frogs are active year-round under the ice, making for a small meal. I found one a week ago, wiggling just under the surface of the ice.
It is somewhat startling to see such a large bird leap out of the water in the winter. Many of the larger birds, such as vultures, ducks and most geese, have left for warmer places. This makes the heron seem even larger and more impressive.
If deeper cold sets in and freezes the unfrozen places, the Great Blue Heron will move to higher ground. It’s large, ungainly tracks can be seen walking across the edges of the field, where its sharp beak pokes into the snow to grab mice and voles for a quick snack.
Our search for otters continues with a steady clomp, clomp, stomp of boots on the ground. Each clomp reminds me of stalking Cedar Waxwings earlier in the year. I was leaning on a tree, waiting for the birds to come closer, when an unending parade of footsteps behind me startled the birds. I waited, watching, and a speed walker came by a few minutes later.
The footsteps preceded the walker by minutes, even to my poor hearing. I wondered how far the clomping of boots would carry on the still morning air. Could the otters and beavers and other animals hear us from half a mile away and take cover long before our arrival?
I suppose it didn’t matter. We didn’t see otters, but we saw otter scat, what my children would call “fish-scaly poo.” There were no beavers, but there were beaver chewed sticks, perhaps with a remnant of beaver spit still on them. (And who can deny the charm of holding a stick covered with what could be real beaver spit?)
A Bald Eagle soared majestically into a nearby tree. In excited joy, the kids thought it was another Great Blue Heron since the wings were so large. The trail passed by with no more signs of wildlife other than otter poo, beaver spit and 21 deer.
A winter walk that ends with temperatures pushing 60 degrees is a treasure, but now we are back to winter snow. Maybe the otters will leave tracks for us to find next time.
Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist for Programs and Exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society and a longtime CWC volunteer and former board director. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or www.facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.