Artificial pond’s gifted visitor shows its true colours — and talent

When I told my daughter, Em, the other day that I was heading over to our local park to see what might be happening in its stormwater-management pond, she was very understanding. She didn’t roll her eyes and wonder what could possibly interest me there.

That’s because she knows, like I do, that stormwater ponds are wonderful things in our dense urban environment. They reduce flooding after heavy rains, reduce erosion caused by high volumes of flowing water, and clean that water by allowing pollutants and solids like sand and dirt to settle out.

There’s something else about these engineered ponds. Birds and other animals didn’t get the memo that these small bodies of water were made by humans; they flock to them for feeding, bathing, drinking, mating and loafing, just as if the ponds were natural and had been there a hundred years. That makes them prime spots to observe wildlife in the city.

On the day I went to our local stormwater pond, I was hoping to see one or more of the big birds that often stop by for an easy meal. But none of our regular visitors — great blue herons, black-crowned night herons and egrets — were in view. I decided to pick a spot on the pond’s banks and just watch for a while. You never know what might fly in.

A double-crested cormorant landed with a small splash, its turquoise eyes glittering like stars. A pair of mallards paddled by within a feather’s width of the cormorant, undisturbed by the much bigger diving bird now sharing their habitat.

As my eyes became familiar with the tangle of vegetation rimming the shore and the mats of broken Phragmites floating on the water, I noticed what appeared to be a shapeless smudge atop the reeds. The sun was behind the shape, making it hard to discern detail. But with my binoculars, a blackish beak and a short, stubby tail came into view. It was a green heron hunched over the water, fishing.

From my observation spot on the pond’s shoreline, hidden behind a screen of reeds, I was able to watch the heron work the waters, undisturbed, for an hour or more. When it perceived potential prey under the surface of the water, it picked up one of its orange Popsicle-coloured feet from the reeds and deliberately moved it a few inches closer to its intended victim. The bird’s movements were so unhurried and precise it seemed like I was watching a slow-motion replay of a film.

Once the heron had positioned itself within striking distance, it plunged its stocky beak into the water with a sharp darting motion to grasp its prey. This bird was no rookie in the fishing department. While green herons are among the species of birds known to use tools, using bread crusts, mayflies and feathers as lures — members of the crow family are other well-known tool users — the bird I watched seemed to have no need of such advanced technique: on nearly every one of its lunges into the water, it surfaced with a little morsel to send slithering down its gullet.

Even with my binoculars, it was hard to identify the food the heron managed to catch; it seemed to be mostly small, nearly transparent fish and some invertebrates that could have been tiny crustaceans.

Hoping to get a photo in better light, I inched along the pond’s shoreline until the sun’s rays were illuminating my subject’s feathers. Now, instead of being a crow-sized silhouette atop the reeds, the heron was a riot of colours. A luxurious mane of burgundy feathers swished down its neck, bordering stripes of chocolate and vanilla marking its breast and belly. Its wing feathers were a shade of dark blue cross-hatched with cream.

But where was the green on this green heron? It was only when the bird stood at a particular angle with the sun’s rays directly on its back and wings that I could even pretend to see any. Teal? Perhaps there were a few wing feathers that could be called teal. If I squinted.

When I got back home from the pond, I showed my photos to Em.

“Why is it called a green heron?” she asked. “That bird’s not a bit of green. If anything, it’s blue.”

I asked her if she remembered the Magic Wagon our family had when she and her brothers were small. That old workhorse was teal, the colour you would get if you mixed equal amounts of blue and green paint on a palette.

She allowed that the heron’s wing and back feathers might be teal, but then wondered why the bird wasn’t named for the magnificent purplish-brown feathers down its neck and sides.

“It makes no sense. This bird should be called the burgundy heron.”

“Take it up with Carl Linnaeus,” I said. “He saw fit to give this bird its species name, Butorides virescens, in 1758. Virescens means ‘greenish’ in Latin.”

I sounded smart, but in the next breath I admitted I wouldn’t have known the origin of the heron’s name if I hadn’t just looked it up. We agreed, at least, that despite its apparently misleading name, my discovery in the pond was a truly handsome specimen.

Em loves birds almost as much as I do. But she still thinks every squirrel outshines all my avian friends, including my not very green heron.

Reach M.L. Bream at [email protected]