Joyce Thompson, Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is making its second appearance in this blog, courtesy of Joyce Thompson, author of several novels and collections including her recent suspenseful and sophisticated mystery HOW TO GREET STRANGERS.  This entry is cross-posted from her own blog.


We first discovered our affinity at twilight on a central Florida beach, not far from Cape Kennedy. I’d turned out to watch the sun set and stayed to enjoy the evening cool, was lost in thought and minding my own business when a vast heron plopped down maybe ten yards away, just offshore. It was more than the splash that caught my attention. The big bird was focused on me, closely as a guy looking to get picked up at a singles bar. I could feel him poking at my consciousness.

Okay, big fella, whaddayou want?

Turns out he wanted to give me flying lessons. For the better part of an hour, he taught me the walk, that elegant high step and recoil, followed by the leap, perfectly coordinated with neck stretch and wingspread—and I tried diligently to mimic his moves, got better and better, all except the last part, where he defied gravity and left the surface of the earth while I was still bouncing along the beach. Whenever he saw he’d left me behind, he’d come back and start again.

How many times did we practice those moves? At least half a dozen before he accepted my telepathic insistence that, as a featherless biped, I just didn’t have the right stuff. We parted with affection and regret.

Cross country and fast forward, to the protected wetland where I run along a 3 mile infolding of San Francisco Bay. The slough’s a safe haven for crows, doves, hummingbirds and red wing blackbirds, egrets, shrikes, rails, cormorants, fat ducks, circling hawks and every kind of migrator, geese and pelicans most prominent among them. Leash your dogs, folks. It’s Birdland, with a slim Great Blue the genius of the place.

Seeing each other daily, we started to relate, always taking a moment to greet one another with a bow of acknowledgment that splits the difference between our native animal behaviors. Sometimes the heron would be seaward, fishing. Sometimes in spring, he stood like a statue in the wet meadow, waiting to catch one of the young ground squirrels, popping out of the underground tunnels.

One bright morning, he struck with particular force. The squirrel was big, and instead of piercing it side to side, the heron speared it head to tail, so hard that it rode far up on his beak and stuck there. The heron shook his head, trying to dislodge the squirrel, but it didn’t move. I watched him struggle until a human walker came up the path and startled him away, flying awkwardly with the weight of the skewered squirrel.

I ran on. Half a mile later, the heron swooped across the path in front of me and landed close by. His fear pierced me—the certainty that he’d starve if his jaws stayed locked.

Help me. I heard his voice inside my head.

It took a minute to get over my disbelief, another to slay self-doubt. The heron waited patiently while I figured it out, picked up a sturdy stick and crept toward him with as heron-like a gait as I could muster.

Easy. I’m trying.

 He stood quiet, suffering me to poke at the squirrel with my stick until it slid down a little. Then he shook his head furiously until the dead squirrel came flying off. When it did, the heron composed himself, fluffed and preened. He nodded slightly in my direction and then took flight.

I watched him rise and get smaller in the sky, while my mind called out to him: Come back. Come back and teach me how to fly.