A Very Local Field Guide: Great Blue Heron

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Text by Anna Maria Johnson

The great blue heron appeared out of nowhere as we drove to church one Sunday morning in spring. Steven was driving, the kids were in back. As our car passed over a bridge that lay across a small creek, the heron filled the view framed by my passenger-side window. In that second of frozen shock, I took in the long neck, concertina-folded, long legs, shaggy body and the eye—the yellow round eye expressing sheer terror, perhaps also disdain for this enormous chunk of steel and glass that suddenly blocked its flight path.

I put my hand up against the window as if in futile attempt to shield the bird from damaging itself against it. Did I scream, “No!” or “Look out,” or possibly, “Red red red!” as I sometimes squawk if I think my husband isn’t braking quickly enough for a stoplight? Or perhaps I simply gulp air and hold it there in my lungs, waiting for the awful thud.

As if with x-ray vision, I imagined the delicate hollow bones of this stunning bird, remembered the story my husband tells of the time he once held a great blue heron in his arms—one that had fallen stunned against a fence, and which he later released under a bridge. So wild, so light, he said.
And this one, about to hit our car and fall stunned or dead. So wild, so light.
But then it brakes in the air, and I can see the feet, the chest, moving as though finding friction against the wind, almost hear the cartoon sound of squealing brakes, “reaaaak!” and the bird stops short a few inches from the pane of glass, averts its body, our eyes still fixed on one another in a locked stare.

It’s out of sight.

I breathe.

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