The Great Blue Heron

It balances like royalty, on one long elegant leg upon a tree outside my bedroom window. Head raised high, azure blue-gray plumage ruffling gracefully in the breeze, it is a magnificent bird, nearly as large as my 18-month-old.

I had only seen it once before in the two years we lived in this townhouse. That time, I enjoyed the bird on my own. Baby was asleep in her crib, while I photographed the bird standing like a statue on that tree, stalking prey in a man-made lake trimmed with office buildings and houses. When it launched itself into the air, I nearly felt its wingtips brush my cheeks as I admired it quietly from my balcony. “Thank you,” I said to the bird, “for bringing me a taste of the wilderness that I am homesick for.” _MG_2804

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

Today, Kyra is helping me pack bags for a road trip. Ethan jumps up and down on piles of clean laundry on my bed while Riley attempts to dip her fingers into the toilet (yes, her new game to annoy mommy). I pull the shades up, hoping the man-made lake as depressing as it is can rejuvenate me like the river that used to run in the backyard of my cabin in Alaska. And that’s when I see my bird.

I squeal. The kids drop whatever they are doing and press their noses against the window. “Mommy, is it injured? How come it only has one leg?” Ethan asks.

“What is it?” Kyra asks.

Perfect opportunity to crack open the Audubon  bird book, which we never get a chance to use now that we live in the city: “Who can tell me what kind of bird this is?”

While the kids flip through the book and ask each other questions like “does it have a yellow bill“ or “chestnut and black accents,” I tell them about the day I spent with this bird and how happy I am that they get a chance to meet it.

Finally, they reach a consensus: Great Blue Heron. I play its call on my iPhone bird app and Riley snatches it out of my hand. Kyra and Ethan wrestle the iPhone out of Riley’s hands and google answers they can’t find in the Audubon book.

Thank you Great Blue Heron for creating a teaching moment that entertains all three of my kids.

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Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh

“Oooo mommy, do you know why herons stand on one leg? Thermoregulation hypothesis,” Kyra stumbles over the words, “Or to look less suspicious to their prey. Cool!” Now they are teaching me.

“Can we go on the balcony to see him?” Ethan asks.

I agree, but warn them that we must be quiet and go all at once so that we don’t scare the bird. While I put on a coat for Riley, Kyra steps out too impatient to wait. By the time, I get outside the heron is showing off its six-foot wingspan as it glides across the surface of the lake crusted with the light of the sun.

“Wow!” all three kids say.

They are so quiet that beneath the sound of the cars whipping by for last minute Christmas gifts at Fair Lakes Shopping Center, we can hear the ducks squawking on the shore and the advertisement calls of the frogs. Who knew that in the midst of office buildings and townhouses, animals had made a home for themselves just like I need to.

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Photo credit Leslie Hsu Oh

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What Does a Baby Bird Do?

Every day the kids wandered farther from our house collecting flowers for their journal until they started returning empty handed.

I knew that patience wasn’t an easy thing for a budding six-year-old and three-year-old, so I tried to redirect their energy.  “Kyra, how would you like to add birds to your flower book project?”

Her droopy shoulders perked up. “Okay, let’s go catch some birds.”

I laughed.  “We don’t collect birds like we collect flowers.  How would you like it if somebody took you away from your Mommy and Daddy and put you in a cage?”

“That would not be so good.”

In seven years of being an Alaskan resident, we never found the time to stroll the boardwalks of Potter Marsh that wind about 1550 feet from a parking lot over a rich habitat for birds.

As soon as we arrived, Kyra ran towards the bluff without pausing once to look for birds.  Ethan wrapped his fist around my pinky and pointed at anything that moved in the water or grass.   “What’s that, Mommee?” And if I didn’t respond right away, he’d decide “fish” or “duck.”

The ducks he found were actually a family of Canada geese with four goslings.  Peeking through the boardwalk fence, Ethan tracked the fuzzy gray babies as they wobbled in and out of the water. 

He studied them silently with no expression on his face.  I had time to photograph the geese and twist my long hair away from my neck so that the ocean breeze could make its way down my back.

Finally, he asked, “What do baby ducks do?”

The question caught me off guard and I heard myself ask him, “What do you do?”

He thought about it for a while, then responded, “Play.  Play with Lightning McQueen.”

Kyra was in a state of agitation by the time we caught up to her.  She wasn’t tall enough to reach the binoculars at the end of the boardwalk and I think she believed that that was the only way she could see a bird.  I lifted her up and after a few seconds of blinking, she complained, “Nothing.  I see nothing.”

“Patience, Kyra.”

She stomped her feet. “Patience.  What is patience?  I don’t know what patience is!” Then, she collapsed into a heap.

Christina Salmon, once told me how her son learned patience from bird hunting.  She said, “To sit quietly in a bird blind for hour s at a time requires a good imagination for a six-year-old boy!  You have to be alert, and watch the sky all evening, for a slim chance that a flock will fly overhead.”

Bird hunting wasn’t something we had access to, but bird watching, I realized, could offer me similar teachable moments.  Bending down to her eye level, I asked, “Kyra, would you like to see some baby birds?”

She squeezed some tears out of her eyes and nodded.

Ethan proudly guided his sister to the crowd admiring the goslings.  “See?  The ducks play the toys.”

Kyra laughed, tears still glistening on her cheek, “Baby ducks swim in the water and eat grass.  My answer is correct but Ethan’s is not correct.”

“Mine correct!” Ethan furrowed his eyebrows and pointed his index finger at his sister.  “Babies play toys. Buz Lightyear!”

A few days later, Kyra wanted to try Potter Marsh again with her dad.  We arrived at about the same time as the last visit, but I immediately noticed a dearth of birds and visitors.  Kyra didn’t seem to notice as she proudly announced that she found a bird. 

“Where Kyra?  Show me?”

She pointed at a bird painted on a sign.  Meanwhile, Ethan refused to walk.  Curled up in my arms, he would lift his head occasionally and whimper, “Where are the babies?”

Just as I was about to doubt whether my kids were too young for birding, blue metallic streaked across the gray skies.  A “cheerful series of liquid twitters” (according to my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Northern American Birds) sliced through the air polluted with a steady stream of gunfire sounds from the Rabbit Creek Shooting Park.

We identified it as a tree swallow. Both kids listened excitedly as I read from the field guide, “Tree swallows enjoy playing with a feather, which they drop and then retrieve as it floats in the air.”

Before returning home, the kids studied an arctic tern hunting for fish and counted 26 goslings in a crèche of five Canada geese families. 

Birding engaged the whole family.  Even Thomas downloaded a free app for identifying birds, which he said wasn’t very good.  At one point, Kyra and Ethan did beg daddy for his iPhone.  However, when Ethan pretends to be a gosling in my living room and Kyra peppers her journal with sketches of tree swallows, I’m hopeful that birdwatching might win their full attention someday.

Here are some of our favorite bird watching tools: 

  • Bird Song Recordings from USGS entertained my kids for hours.  They both chose their favorite “chirp” as Ethan called it.
  • The Birders Library recommends several Bird Apps for the iPhone.