Signs of Spring: the Alliterate Bird

He's been mistaken for a dead branch, even an oar standing upright. The children of tropical America are said to call him a "fly-up-the-creek." In Maine, this summer resident has a wing span the width of our brook. He lands in a nearby meadow, beak thrust forward and legs trailing loosely, like a Concorde.

He's our heron. I say "our" because this great blue wader returns to our neighborhood and his nest upstream year after year. (At least we think it's the same bird.)

His familiar territory is meandering and wet. The brook behind our house floods every spring, soaking nearby rushes. The red-wing blackbirds along the shore take notice of the inundation, flitting in and out of their low-lying nests and rearranging twigs to handle the deluge. As for the heron, he emerges from the mud flats and mist, flapping over miles of water upstream to an aerie above a large pond. Only the pond people see his nest. We just see the flapping and the long, thin legs.

But we all share in the delight of this great bird's homecoming every spring. For nothing signals warm weather in our Maine neighborhood more than the return of this graceful, gray-suited cosmopolitan.

It goes like this: Our family, along with neighbors we haven't seen all winter, crowd at a little point of swamp directly across from where this tall gentlebird stands at a stately distance. After we ooh and aah over his poise (sometimes he balances on one foot), invariably someone asks where we think he wintered.

My kids yell; "Miami!" Somebody else offers "Bermuda!"

My field guide tells us it's Honduras, but that's OK, I tell everybody. "For sure, it's a point well south of New England, in ice-free water," I offer wistfully.

Before the group breaks up, there's speculation as to breeding intentions. "Is there a mate?" someone asks. "Has anyone seen her?" We never have. Then a few will comment on the heron's work habits: "Why isn't he nesting?" (if he's in front of us stalking a brook frog). Or, if he's absent, "Why isn't he here?" when he's probably busy building a nest.

Then the Heron Fan Club disperses for the summer. We gather again on a brisk autumn day (a reason to stop raking leaves) to inquire, "Have you seen him lately?" "Has he left for Honduras?"

If none of us has spotted him, we conclude that he's left for the season and we disperse. However, if just one of us has sighted a feather aloft, well then, we have to convene again before snowfall to be sure he's really safe and gone.

Over the years, I've discovered that this largely inconspicuous "he" is a bird of many names. As I found out nearly by accident, my "Harry" is someone else's Harvey or Henry. A highly alliterate heron.

A pond resident clued me in. It was the heron's second season in our neighborhood. Naturally, we were all excited about his return.

"I just saw Henry fly over your place last night," one neighbor reported. "I think he landed in the channel."

"Henry?" I asked.

"You know, the heron. The blue heron. He's in residence again."

"Oh, yes, Harry," I confirmed. I wasn't about to give up a perfectly good name. But then I discovered that Harry had another alias. My neighbor Greg leaned over his mailbox one day and asked me if Harvey was back. By this time, I had caught on. I knew just who he meant. "Oh, sure, I saw him last night in the channel. Harry-Harvey-Henry."

"No kidding!" Greg smiled, "I didn't know there were three...." And so the name-game continues all summer long.

Author Sarah Orne Jewett made it easy for readers in her short story "A White Heron" by simply not naming the bird. Her 19th-century characters just call him "the heron." Like Harry, he returns to Maine, rising above the marshes and swamps year after year: "the wild, light, slender bird that floats and wavers, and goes back like an arrow presently to his home in the green world beneath."

In our home, Harry's name started out in Jewett fashion, as broad as his wing span. My daughter Heidi yelled one spring morning, "Mom! it's a great blue heron!" I ran to the picture window, and there he was, camouflaged among the tall, nodding rushes.

Next year, Heidi's call was "Mom! The blue heron's here!" Again, I rushed to the window. This time, he was heading upstream, wings opening as wide as a beach umbrella. Finally, as familiarity settled in, it was simply, "Mom! Harry's back!"

FLIGHT habits also keep us aware of who's really up there in the sky. Looking hastily out the front door one morning, I said, "Well, there goes Harry!" My husband, even less bird-wise than I am, looked, too, and quickly replied, "He's moving too fast and his legs aren't dangling. I don't think that's Harry."

Oops. He was right. For the wings clearly did not have that slow, sweeping flap-flap common to a heron. Why, he didn't look at all like a bumbershoot. What was I thinking?

Hmm. I think I'll keep watching for him, as long as he keeps coming home.

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