The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron


So heavy
is the long-necked, long-bodied heron,
always it is a surprise
when her smoke-colored wings
and she turns
from the thick water,
from the black sticks
of the summer pond,
and slowly
rises into the air
and is gone.
Then, not for the first or the last time,
I take the deep breath
of happiness, and I think
how unlikely it is
that death is a hole in the ground,
how improbable
that ascension is not possible,
though everything seems so inert, so nailed
back into itself —
the muskrat and his lumpy lodge,
the turtle,
the fallen gate.
And especially it is wonderful
that the summers are long
and the ponds so dark and so many,
and therefore it isn’t a miracle
but the common thing,
this decision,
this trailing of the long legs in the water,
this opening up of the heavy body
into a new life: see how the sudden
gray-blue sheets of her wings
strive toward the wind; see how the clasp of nothing
takes her in.
“Heron Rises from the Dark, Summer Pond”
~  Mary Oliver


Comments always are welcome. The photo of the great blue heron (Ardea herodias), taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, is mine.

108 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Great Blue Heron

  1. Your photo is remarkable, Linda. Balancing on the tip of a wing. Mary Oliver’s poem describes it exactly.
    We watched a solitary Great Blue Heron for a number of years as he grandly proclaimed a vacant lot in town as his own. There are several large trees in the lot and nothing else. Then one day builders came with their huge machinery and loud noise, and our Heron decided to disembark. The large apartment building which took half of the lot is ugly and unnecessary, and I miss “my” heron each time we drive by.

    1. It is remarkable, isn’t it? The heron is airborne, and yet seemingly still attached to the earth, if only by a feather. I see herons standing around quite often, but it pleased me no end to capture one in flight.

      We’re presently surrounded by construction, most of which is going to turn into assisted living and such for the elderly. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, except the basic monthly rates are so high that no one I hang out with can afford them. We all joke about ending up under the local bridge, but it’s gallows humor. Staying healthy is a priority, believe me.

      Beyond all that, I really do become irritated at all the building on spec that goes on around here. Land is torn up and creatures are displaced, and all the while the new strip centers and apartments remain vacant. I much prefer the “vacant” lots that aren’t vacant at all, but filled with flowers and birds and beauty.

      1. Very true here as well. Large apartment buildings going up all over town while others recently built remain vacant. Old businesses, ie World Market, some good restaurants, suddenly close without notice. Traffic is abominable, with cars cutting through Fremont to get to Pleasanton. Difficult to et across town at any time of day, but during commuter hours it is impossible.
        As nice as it is to shop on the internet, it is destroying a lot of local businesses.
        Weather clear, sunny and cold. In a further effort to simplify life, Dr. A took out two trees this week. Both fruit trees which we don’t need.

        1. Businesses here are having the same problems. We do have real fun on the horizon, as major construction is planned on both roads I can use to get to work. When you live on one side of a lake and work on the other, and there are only two roads… There may be complications. But just like Scarlett, I’ll worry about that “tomorrow.”

    1. Their patience is remarkable. They will occasionally stand around where I work, and I’ve seen them spend as much as an hour or two in the same spot, waiting for dinner to swim by. Of course, moving around could create quite a disturbance, given their size, so it’s probably a good strategy for them. I’m glad you enjoyed this one’s photo, and Mary Oliver’s words.

  2. Linda, I was reading the poem and was thinking for a moment: wow, Linda writes like Mary Oliver! Then I saw it was Mary Oliver. Love your heron. We just saw a few of them passing us overhead while climbing rocks at the lakeshore. Thank you for sharing!

    1. It would be something to write like Mary Oliver, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, we already have Mary Oliver, so it’s probably better that you write like Kristina, and I write like Linda. It’s always better to find our own voice, rather than taking on someone else’s.

      The great blues aren’t uncommon here at all, but they seem to have larger territories than the various egrets, and they’re more solitary. Seeing one’s always special, especially when they’re on the move.

  3. I love this poem, and it’s an excellent photo. The wings are an almost perfect arc. And it really is a surprise, every time, that they manage to get airborne.
    When fishing, they’re the epitome of patience. And they get around! It was a nice surprise to see them –something familiar — amidst all the unusual creatures, in the Galapagos.

    1. Instead of a rainbow, it’s a birdbow. I got a kick out of the small shadow made by that great wing, too. I’ve heard plenty of references to people who cast a great shadow, but I don’t remember ever hearing, “Oh, he cast a small shadow.”

      The great blue does seem to get around. I wondered what other herons might live in the Galapagos, and discovered the lava heron. That was a new one, of course. We’re a little short on lava here in coastal Texas.

    1. I think so, too. The pairing of Oliver’s poem with the photo is lovely, but the heron’s photo would go just as well with this song. A blue heron video with that sound track would be lovely — although I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out how to make it.

  4. The way that photo was timed with the tip of the wing just touching the water is poetry in itself. And the dark underside of the wing calls attention to it, drawing the eye down to that sweet spot. Perfection!

    1. Thanks, Jean. Of course, there was a portion of luck involved, too. Waiting for one of these to make a move can require heron-like amounts of patience. Still, I’m happy enough with the image, and as I mentioned up above, that little bit of shadow only adds to the effect. Next time, I’ll try for a bit more sharpness, but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    1. They are fun to watch, aren’t they? Sometimes they seem a little unsure what to do with that neck: curl it up, or just keep it level and straight? So many decisions to make — even for a bird!

    1. There’s no question that luck played a role. On the other hand, there was a whole lot of waiting around, too. I know of photographers who will purposefully send a bird flying rather than waiting for it to move on its own, but that seems wrong to me. I’d rather wait, and see what happens. In this instance, it paid off.

      It’s easy to forget how large those wings are if they’re only seen at the edge of the water, or high in the sky. They’re very impressive, indeed.

  5. Linda, what a perfect illustration to this poem. PERFECT.
    I had never seen a Great Blue Heron until we moved here in the south. Now I see them often and I’m always fascinated.

    I’m off to bed and thank you for the lovely image to help me to sleep.

    1. I hope you flew off to dreamland as easily as the heron flew away into the reeds, Lynda. I’m glad the herons are part of your life now. They’re pretty widespread, and seem able to adapt to a variety of conditions.

      I do enjoy it when a photo and a poem fit together so nicely, and this pair certainly complement one another. I’m taking my camera to work tomorrow to try and capture a photo of one of our ospreys before they leave. I fear they won’t be around much longer, and I always miss them when they’re gone.

    1. Thanks, joared. I have some unusual photos of a great blue wading in the Gulf waters, but I’ve been wanting to capture one in flight. Now I have. As for the poem, Mary Oliver’s one of a clutch of poets that always satisfy, and it pleases me when I find one to share.

    1. You’re welcome, Nia. I remember that you also like Mary Oliver, and of course you like the birds, so this is nicely suited for you. I hope you soon will have nice Spring weather, and more birds of your own to enjoy. ~ Linda

    1. It’s interesting how different species can call up those home memories. I saw a large flock of robins last weekend, and that’s all it took to transport me back to spring in Iowa. I’m glad the photo roused some memories for you, Becca.

  6. I am always thrilled when I see Herons, no matter how often it may be. So easy to spot in flight and ever-amazing while standing still. I just had to laugh the time I was driving by on Hwy 2 (the fairly busy connection between our two nearest towns) and caught one taking off from a front yard fountain with someone’s prize “goldfish” and then again at another “watering hole” 23km away (but less as the Heron flies. Not likely to be the same bird; so, a learned behaviour, this catching fish in a barrel, or just really intelligent birds as a species?

      1. It’s good to see it’s maintaining its population up there, too. I just learned from a commenter up above that they can be found in the Galapagos. I didn’t know that, but now I see it mentioned in the article you linked, too. I suppose I just haven’t paid attention.

    1. I’d vote for intelligent myself, although it’s clearly a learned behavior. The blue herons around here have figured out that it’s worth hanging around fishermen. When someone pulls in a fish they don’t want to keep — not the best eating, or under-sized — they often will flip it to any bird that’s around, and those birds learn quickly.

      The only thing I’ve ever seen drive off a blue heron is an osprey. The osprey apparently like to think of themselves as kings of the hill, and if a heron happens to perch higher than the osprey, it’s time to do battle until the interloper’s gone.

      1. I love Osprey (yes, they are quite prevalent around here as well) and, with one nest in particular on a hydro pole right at the highway’s edge, it’s wonderful to be able to watch their goings on every year. Sounds like what you’re describing is pretty much like the ongoing competition between the larger, “city type” squirrels and the little Red fellow who’s midden keeps growing under (one of) our Red Pines beside the driveway, lol!

        1. Everybody wants their space, don’t they? It’s fun to watch the cormorants roost at night. They get all lined up, with just the right amount of space between each bird, and then another one arrives. If they let it in, the whole line has to readjust the keep the spacing just right.

    1. She does have a recognizable voice, doesn’t she? You sensing her work is akin to my looking at a page of wildflower thumbnails on Google and being able to pick out your photos.

  7. Have you ever seen these little fellows Linda? When caught at just the right angle, their colouration is simply stunning: particularly the gorgeous iridescent green on the back of the head and strikingly marked wings, with russet neck & chest, yellow-orange legs and vivid eye: ) but amazingly, when in dull light or shade, these shy little guys are virtually invisible – true fishermen who bait their prey.
    As a kid, I was so, SO incredibly lucky to have had one (or them?)as summer time resident(s) fishing off the “Turtle Log” in our pond.

    1. Oh, Deb. I’m ashamed to say I see so many of these I don’t even have a photo of one. They’re not as common as seagulls down here, but it’s close. They haven’t arrived yet. They’re here through the summer, and generally get here after the coots and osprey are gone. I’d say they probably arrive in April or May, although they may be here earlier this year.

      They love to hang around the marinas, and there’s always one or two perched on dock lines nearby. They’re noisy, and fuss at one another a good bit, but they’re fun to have around.

        1. I double-checked, and it is the same bird. Here’s an article about them in Texas. And, here’s a nice photo from a Texas birder.

          There probably are shy ones here, too, but they do seem content to hang around people. You can’t get close to them, though. They’ll skitter from one place to another if someone intrudes on their space.

            1. Not only that, I saw my first one of the season today — inside a marina, sitting on a dock line.I thought I might have a photo of a juvenile, but I figured out that it’s a black-crowned night heron. They’re all so cute!

  8. This is such a great photo, Linda. Just caught the tipping wing perfectly.

    I like the weight of the language in this poem of Mary Oliver’s: heavy, languid, but full of power. I also like the fact that you have posted just before Lent, which is followed by ‘this opening up ….into a new life…’

    1. Isn’t that wing something? Of course, I didn’t realize how perfectly I’d captured it until I got home and saw it on the computer. I knew the arc was there, but I couldn’t quite tell in-camera how close the wingtip was to the water. It was pretty darned close.

      And yes — I thought about the relevance for the season. Speaking of Ash Wednesday, wouldn’t this pair well with Eliot’s poem? I don’t have the time or energy to do it justice, so I’ll save the photo for its original purpose. You’ll be interested.

  9. On still days on the river I like to watch the heron’s wings for the sign of infinity (the figure of 8, sideways) made in the reflection.
    I love those big, unlikely bodies aloft… and while I write this am wondering if you know the poem about the swan taking off. The images of this poem called it to mind. Rilke, is it?

    1. Now that I’ve seen this, I can imagine the infinity sign on the water. Lovely. And they certainly do seem to rise effortlessly — at least, most of the time. Now and then one seems a bit stiff, and it takes a little longer to become graceful again.

      I don’t know the poem about the swan. I do remember that Rilke wrote a poem about a swan, but I thought it was settling down onto the water. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a pair of swans in the neighborhood again. If I come across them, I’ll have another bird to pair with a poem.

  10. I’m most impressed with your photo, Linda. I’ve tried to photograph these beautiful birds, but sadly, my captures aren’t anywhere near as detailed … or lovely! The poet is right, of course. It doesn’t look as if something so immense should be able to fly — but tell that to a jumbo jet, right?!!

    1. Honestly, Debbie, they spend so much time just standing around waiting for the next fish or frog it can be tempting to just “snap and go.” On the other hand, they aren’t particularly skittish, so it’s sometimes possible to get close enough for a nice photo — but not always.

      Bumblebees are the other creatures that always have seemed impossible flyers to me. And then there’s the “guppy” — the NASA plane that truly doesn’t seem as though it should fly, even when you see it in the sky. It stops by the Johnson Space Center every now and again, and it’s quite a sight. I got to see it take off in 2012. This video will give you a look at it, even if you don’t want to watch the whole thing. If you do want to see the take off, you can start the video at about 5;00.

  11. The photograph is stunning, and the poem is lovely, as per Mary Oliver! I so like the theme of God’s two books and am ever enthralled by the conversation between the two. Artists, I think, best echo this in both word and image. Thanks to both of you!

    1. Thanks for your compliment on the photo, Allen — and for your appreciation of Mary Oliver. Now that I think about it, those two books could serve as the basis for a perfectly fine library — especially if surrounded by commentaries written by people like Oliver, Dillard, Aldo Leopold, and Loren Eiseley. It’s a rich tradition, for sure.

    1. Thanks, Bella. I remember a photo of your dad sitting outside. I think he was next to a creek, or some body of water, and I think it was a celebration of some sort — perhaps a birthday. I’m sure he enjoyed the birds, too. I remember you talking about them from time to time, and how they delighted you.

  12. Nature can and does remind those with heavy hearts that there may be something above the pond, above the ” lumpy lodge” that will soothe the aching heart. Surely the heraldic heron, especially this fine specimen, is indicative of something more out there.

    1. One of the first Methodist hymns I learned included this verse:

      “This is my Father’s world,
      and to my listening ears
      all nature sings, and round me rings
      the music of the spheres.
      This is my Father’s world:
      I rest me in the thought
      of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
      his hand the wonders wrought. ”

      All nature sings, indeed — or flies, or basks, or blooms: bringing healing in the process.

      1. “All nature sings… bringing healing in the process.” Oh, yes indeed and thank you! I’ve not thought of this song in years; but we used to sing it weekly at Explorers (or was it CGIT/ Canadian Girls in Training) [and although I’m truly not sure what it was that we were “in training” for, the hymn was how we started our meetings and I always loved the lyrics: )

        1. I was introduced to it during summer Vacation Bible School. I really should post about that week. Our teachers were geniuses. We took a verse every day, and went out in the world to find examples of things included in the verse. The brothers Wesley took the doctrine of creation seriously, and it filtered down even to the grade school kids a century later.

  13. What a beautiful photo! The poem is very moving too. I saw similar birds while in Langkawi, I think they may be grey egrets, they had yellow legs, but looked very similar to your

    1. I think you’re right about the gray herons, Dina. When I went looking to see if the great blue could be found in New Zealand, I discovered the answer is “no.” But, the gray heron is there, as well as other places in that part of the world, so it makes sense.

      I’ll say this for the herons — and other birds, as well: they do travel light! I’m anxous to delve more closely into your account of your somewhat burdened travels.

    1. Sometimes art imitates life; sometimes life imitates art; and sometimes there’s no imitation at all: they just fit together perfectly, and complement one another. That’s perfection!

    1. I thought about Harry while I was watching this one. Honestly? I thought he probably would just keep standing in the reeds, waiting for a fish. I certainly was surprised when he flew. The lesson? She who watches the heron needs heron-like patience!

  14. Dear Linda,
    this is a really remarkable photo, but even more impressing for me is your text. My English (my own poems are in German) isn’t so refined I could appreciate every detail, but its music is singing to me.

    1. That’s all right, Ule. There are some native English speakers who wouldn’t appreciate every detail. I’m glad you caught a hint of its song, and enjoyed the photo. Your own photos are lovely, although my abilities with German are far inferior to your English skills. When I traveled in Germany, I did manage to get by, thanks to very friendly people. Still. phrases like, “Ein bier, bitte” did help out!

      It’s so nice to have you visit. You’re always welcome here. ~ Linda

    1. It is a marvel. They have an uncanny ability to go from just standing around to full flight without a sound. No coot-like running for them, and no ungainly, pelican-like thrashing. They simply rise up, give a few slow flaps, and are gone. Kundera aside, I sometimes think such lightness of being wouldn’t be unbearable at all.

  15. Also, I meant to say that Oliver’s poem reminds me of an idea that G.K. Chesterton seemed to return to frequently, that while the newspapers have to tell us always about unusual things, it is typically the most common events that are actually sensational and exciting in that they go on happening again and again: “The whole order of things is as outrageous as any miracle which could presume to violate it.”

    1. Breathing. Sunrises and sunsets. The swing of the constellations and the beating of our hearts. All of them simply “are” — until their swinging and beating and orderly progression are interrupted, and we stand astonished by what we so often ignore. Your comment sent me back to the Chesterton Society’s site, which I haven’t visited for a good while, and I found these additional, delicious words which fit nicely with those you quoted: “The simplification of anything is always sensational.”

    1. The photographer thanks you, and I’m sure the poet would, too — if she knew how much we both admire her. It’s a nice poem for this time of year, and the months to come. It seems to me to have some of the feel of those long, sultry summer days yet to come.

  16. Beautiful bird and poem. I saw these birds both in P.R. and Florida, but they are permanent residents in Florida. I love their crests and wings.

    1. They’re so widespread. Friends in Michigan and Minnesota see them regularly, too — and some Canadians. They must be adaptable as well as beautiful, although I imagine most migrate from areas with serious winter ice. It would be hard to catch a fish if you have to use your beak as a drill.

  17. Oh, yes. Herons. How wonderfully those blue-grey wings row upward over the air, in careful strokes, yet even so, a smoke-grey wingtip might brush so gently against the heart and leave a tickle of wonder behind, as it rows away across the still blue waters of the sky. .

    1. I see you crafted this as a “small stone” for your site, too. I especially like the use of “rowing” — that’s exactly how the birds can look in flight. I suppose it’s due to those slow, rhythmic wing beats. They are beautiful, indeed

      On a related note, I read just today that there’s a group dedicated to the restoration of playa lakes that has one project in Texas. Do you see herons at your playas? I suspect you probably do. As I imagine they playas, they’d be perfect for herons.

      1. Our city has deliberately created playas in town at various parks to handle the runoff from the storm drains. Usually when it rains here, it comes hard and fast, and they’ve set up these playas for the storm drains to empty into to keep the flooding down. The city keeps ducks and geese at each of the lakes (and has a place to keep them over winter). The one over where I used to live has an island in the center, and there were herons and cattle egrets that hung out there as well as gulls and various waterfowl. There’s another one over by my bank branch where if they let the reeds grow, there are redwing blackbirds and ruddy ducks and whatnot. Unfortunately, there’s not much planting around most of the lakes, other than just grass, but some of the parks have trees and all the lakes are stocked with fish. The bigger lakes have aeration fountains. There is a small lake in an area behind the K-mart that they’ve just let go that has mesquite and various other trees. They’ve got a tall chain-link fence around it to keep the kids out. It’s like a minihabitat.

        1. That’s just wonderful. Clearly, there’s a real effort being made to satisfy the needs of the birds — not to mention the needs of humans to have flood waters end up someplace other than their living rooms. That chain-link fence isn’t a bad idea, either. An ounce of prevention, and all that.

          It looks like your winds are going to pick up again. The tongue-slightly-in-cheek forecast being bandied about for the Panhandle on Monday is for flaming tumbleweeds. We’ll hope not.

  18. It isn’t a miracle, but a common thing – lovely idea, isn’t it? Trust Mary Oliver to find interesting ways to talk about the natural world and our relationship to it. And it’s kind of a miracle that Great Blue herons are so common, too. I have never tired of them, can see them over and over, and always they excite, they satisfy some longing for wild beauty.

    1. One of the themes Dillard returns to again and again, and which I find congenial, is that the miraculous isn’t something outside of everyday reality, but something embedded in the heart of reality. It’s a wonderful thought: that the mosquito, the tornado, and the wildfire mediate the divine as surely as a baby, a butterfly, or a rainbow.

      You’re right about the herons. They’re nearly ubiquitous, and not particularly skittish, but they still have that marvelous aloofness that sets them apart, and draws us to them. Well, draws me, anyway — and you, too.

    1. They are wonderful birds, and it’s always fun to see one doing something other than standing around. Of course, they aren’t “just” standing around. They’re waiting for a fish, or communing with the universe, or whatever, but from a human persepective — even a photographer human — it can become a little tedious waiting for them to stir. I’m glad I waited.

  19. I have never seen a Great Blue Heron over here, ours are more in the grey/white/black shades and smaller. As for the poem, it is so meaningful, so beautiful. I will print it and read it again, and again. Thank you Linda.

    1. Others have mentioned the herons being gray — in England and New Zealand, particularly. All of them are beautiful, although our Great Blues can be more than usually impressive. I’m so glad you enjoyed the poem. It gives me so much pleasure to think of you re-reading it, Isa. That’s a great compliment.

  20. I am always astounded watching one of these avian behemoths rise up from the water. Of course, their wings are huge and quite strong along with the fact that their weight is rather small. Still, as with many other large birds, such as cranes and storks, it is a pleasure to watch them lift out of the water with apparent ease. Not so with the land-based ungainly wild turkey.

  21. On the other hand, those turkeys can run! I’ve seen them make a hard right into a cornfield and it’s as though they never existed. I don’t know if they freeze once they’re hidden, but there’s never a sound or a ripple of cornstalks. It’s amazing.

    Seeing a great blue take off is a treat, every time. I love watching them fly, too. Those slow wing beats and tucked neck give them an air that’s almost regal. I really had hoped to see the wood storks fly this year. They’re another bird that pretty much just stands around — until they take off and become graceful. The transformation’s amazing.

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