When I think of Great Plains birds I usually think of meadowlarks, hawks, and crows. In this dry country, I don’t think of water birds with their long legs and necks as typical. Yet these herons have made the plains home longer than European immigrants have. Their limbs have adapted for wading our shallow creeks and rivers, and their bills make perfect spears to impale unwary fish and frogs.
As soon as I heard the first cranes calling as they flew over in late February, I began looking for the lanky herons to return. In mid-March, I saw one of the long legged birds circling the heronry the birds have used the last few years. Soon after I saw the forward scout, a cold front swept through, and no more of these exotic looking creatures appeared.
That worried me. Recently, a small tornado blew through their nesting area, destroying a couple of nests. I don’t know how birds pick their neighborhood, but when I did not see the herons as I expected, I thought they had chosen a new area to raise their young.
I needn’t have worried. These birds, designed to live along marshes and rivers were just late returning to nest in the huge cottonwoods bordering Big Creek. They haven’t always lived here. According to a friend who knows these things, a colony near Munjor grew too large a while back and split, sending a number of nesting birds into eastern Trego County.
The birds have spent the last decade building platforms of twigs and small branches in treetops in order to raise their young on fish and frogs found in Big Creek and nearby ponds. Once the trees leaf out, the birds’ nests become invisible.
In fact, the first year they arrived in eastern Trego County, I saw the large grey-blue individuals wading Big Creek or standing patiently in a nearby pond, waiting to spear an unsuspecting meal. I didn’t realize they’d moved into the neighborhood to stay. I considered them visitors until I spotted their dark, circular basins built high in the cottonwoods following the fall leaf drop.
Gaining a new bird population signals a vital creek that can support pairs raising their young. They nest high enough to avoid local bobcats and coyotes, though I suppose a hungry owl or hawk makes a pass through the rookery looking for stragglers or weak birds.
Though these creatures select western Kansas to raise their young, once the summer turns to fall, these beautiful, yet awkward flight machines pack up and head south. They winter somewhere in South America before returning to Kansas each spring. I would love to hear the tales of their travels.
In this country, we value our neighbors even when we do not often see them. We value large grey-blue birds and look forward to their annual return. When I hear the song of the crane, I know it won’t be long until I see the long-legged herons taking turns nesting or finding food for the hatchlings in their nests.