Sunday, June 1, 2014

Herons roost in Menomonee Valley


I discovered the heron rookery by accident a couple weeks ago. I was investigating an out-of-the-way corner of the Menomonee Valley.

Does it sound strange that there can be an out-of-the-way place in the Valley? It’s true: A place so unlikely to be visited by people that herons are willing to roost there. It’s one of the greatest miracles of urban wilderness, to be able to experience wildlife in the midst of industrial development.

I fairly literally stumbled upon the rookery, making my way across broken concrete, when I heard a commotion in the crown of the trees overhead. Two or three large birds squawked loudly and took flight as the branches dipped and swayed from their weight. I caught only a glimpse at first.

Picking my way through the underbrush I scared off several more of what seemed likely to be herons. I also noticed what appeared to be nests—bundles of sticks in crooks of high branches. Finally I spotted a bird that remained stationary long enough for me to train my lens on it.

This bird, if not all of them, turned out to be a black-crowned night-heron. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, this is the most widespread heron species in the world. It also says, “They live in fresh, salt and brackish wetlands.” I don’t think the Menomonee Valley canal quite lives up to any of those descriptions. Is there a term like “brackish” that refers to a mixture of fresh and polluted? Still, I’m encouraged to know that the water is clean enough to attract herons.

There were more surprises in store when I revisited the spot this weekend. I had to cross a railroad to get to get to the rookery. No sooner did I step on to the rail bed than I saw five or six herons, along with sundry mallards and herring gulls, lounging on the tracks farther down. By the time I got close enough to grab this shot with my telephoto the others had all flapped away.

Then when I reached the meager woodland, lo and behold, the expected handful of birds turned out to be several dozen or more! With every step more birds started up with their raucous complaints. Everywhere I looked up I saw more nests. The leaves of the ground cover—mostly creeping Charlie and bishop’s weed—were completely speckled with droppings.

Suddenly it was my turn to be startled as a train just barely visible through the trees began to move. There was an enormous crashing of metal on metal. Each car clanked loudly in rapid succession as the couplings were wrenched into motion. The herons took no notice of this unnatural racket. It was me with my camera that they found threatening.

Upon further reflection, the presence of herons here in the Valley is no more miraculous than the presence of railroads. In the twenty-first century, here in this place, who is to judge which is more natural? We have inherited a landscape that has been utterly transformed in pursuit of utilitarian ends. If an unused corner of it can appeal to herons, consider how much more wildlife we might attract into our urban lives by deciding it is an end worth pursuing?

The good news of the Menomonee Valley is that we have made that decision. We are bringing nature and wildlife back along with new industries. I look forward to the day when more discriminating species than black-crowned night-herons, mallards and herring gulls will flourish in the Valley.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.


  1. That's really great! Those are beautiful pictures of the herons.

  2. Thank you. They are pretty skittish; hard to catch.