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Green Herons!

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

The Tennessee humidity soaked my coworker Mark's shirt as my black booties sank into the soft grass. We weren't prepared for wildlife watching, yet here we were, parting branches as turtles slipped into the pond. I held my breath as Mark motioned to the nest he had found earlier that day, a bundle of twigs in the crotch of two branches. He was sure it was the nest of the green heron, the small, stalky bird with banana yellow legs that had established a flight path directly over our office's balcony. The bird was my favorite part of the sky, an elusive treasure that glided so quickly you could blink and miss it. Standing in front of its presumed nest was even more magical, not only because the green heron is a "common bird in steep decline" whose nests have been described as “extremely difficult to find”, but also because Metro Center— on first glance— fails miserably by all definitions of natural habitat. The business park is a collection of drab buildings and grey streets harassed by semi trucks hauling beer to the warehouses. The polluted Cumberland River that lines the complex at the very back, and small ponds like this one tucked between buildings, are the closest glimpses we have of the outdoors. Surprisingly, these green and blue reliefs support a fair amount of wildlife, from sun-soaked turtles to big-mouthed fish that dissolve into shadows of silt. This presence of wildlife, in turn, means turtle eggs and fish eggs and bird eggs crack and reveal miniature turtles and fish and birds, tiny replicas tasked with perpetuating their species in the shadows of trees.

“How did you find this nest?” I interrogated Mark, mentally mapping out his walking path, realizing I have no idea where any of my coworkers go on their breaks, and even less of an idea of what they find while they’re there. Suddenly a scraggly head poked up from the nest, then another, then another, until all three mango colored bills were visible, the lower end of the 3-5 egg clutch size typical for these birds. The youngins were as adorable as (most) humans find human babies— unfamiliar how to move in time and space, with curious eyes. Except these little ones didn’t cry, just stretched their bare wings and long, throaty necks and yawned at the great big sky they’d soon call their own. Mark and I visited the nest several times a week for the next three weeks to watch these herons grow into adolescents. One day, we found them spread out on the branches, wobbling, learning to counterbalance their legs and heavy bills. I hoped our presence wasn’t stressing them or the parents (both who feed and rear the young)—if this was a safe spot, maybe the nest would be recycled and renovated next breeding season. On one of June’s final days, I hauled my camera and tripod in a light, cool drizzle to these herons’ home, this accidental sanctuary tucked between the trees, and I searched and searched for our bird-legged babies.

As thunder groaned, the vacant branches swayed with the empty nest.

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