Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Life and Death Drama at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria, BC

 The evening started out peacefully enough. We were in Beacon Hill Park, one of the most beautiful in Victoria, out for an after-dinner walk at sunset. We were strolling through the small Japanese Park and pond, when a man pointed out a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) which he said was just learning to fly. It was perched just a few feet over my head, and was staying perfectly still.
It was marvelous having a chance to see such a grand bird up so close, even if its plumage made it look slightly ridiculous.
I've watched herons plenty of times before, and never really heard them make much noise. I wouldn't yet know their call if I heard it (you can follow this link to hear their normal call: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Blue_Heron/id).
I walked under a conifer along the pond and saw a familiar white coating that looked like snow but most certainly wasn't. There was a heron rookery overhead. About this time we heard an ungodly screeching up in the trees. I figured it was some kind of domestic dispute, or maybe juveniles calling for food, but there seemed to be an urgency, or even panic in the calls. I was starting to realize that something was off, but I couldn't see what was going on clearly high overhead.
I could see now that there were adult herons perched strategically all around the pond, as if acting like sentries. The man I had talked to before said that he thought they were looking out for the juvenile, that it might be having trouble getting back to its nest. That seemed reasonable, and Mrs. Geotripper and I walked on.
Then, Mrs. Geotripper saw them, flying into the pines on the east side of the pond. There were two Bald Eagles on the prowl, and they looked like they meant business. And that business didn't involve their usual diet of fish.
The drought that has affected California is far more widespread. The snows of winter were a fraction of normal in the Pacific Northwest, and the salmon runs this summer have been disastrously low. Some of the eagles are looking to other prey, and heron chicks have been part of their diet. They were raiding the heron rookery.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
The drama hasn't been confined to this year, I later found. Eagles drove off the entire heron colony at Beacon Hill Park in 2007, and I haven't been able to find when they came back, but they were there, but clearly living with the constant threat of attack. What a stressful existence.
I know it's the circle of life and all that, but I was glad not to witness nature raw in tooth and claw this particular evening. The eagles were lurking, but the herons were harassing them, trying to drive them off. They weren't going to be surprised.
Two very different birds in one tree.
Postscript: Reading up on the Great Blue Herons of Vancouver Island, I found that they are a subspecies (Ardea herodias fannini), that live on the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Information about the subspecies can be found by clicking here.

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