Aug 142013

Great Blue Heron Pair, Greeting

After years of searching, I found a large great blue heron rookery just off the Connecticut River with more than a dozen nests, and many herons. Over a period of four months I watched them build their nests and hatch their chicks and the chicks prosper and at last take flight on their own. It was wonderful to see, and as usual when I am in the field, I felt a deep sense of privilege. Rhapsody is based on that experience and its effect, like an ancient seal impressed in molten wax.


(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

The dead oaks spread against the sky like mouths, lips thin as a spindle, grey as their own demise. Dry and cracked and begging for rain though they stand in a pond of water, thirsty though they have drowned. And it is not rain that will come to them, that will purpose this long last stand of their being. Although, like rain, it will come from the clouds, and the color of clouds.

In the still air, in guttural blue plumage swirling and shuddering in grey come whispering rolling like fog, Great Blue Herons! And they glide and glide then pull, up straight, waving wide grey-blue arms, and all in slow motion. Then grasp the thin dead branches wingtips spread broad as a balance bar, the tightrope quavering in their light and thin-legged touch. And do not settle but stand tall now in salutation, bright bills up raised each toward the other, mouths open like branches, their necks reaching, Great Blue Herons, lovers never touching as if yearning like a thirst never quenched except in the liquid of the eyes.

For the Herons have no water, but neither have they brought fire. And in their mouths they bring only branches, to be woven like baskets, to hold and caress the Source of themselves. Oval. Perfect. In the shape of the World before it was born and blue as a pale blue sky. Patient and practiced, now until the shell breaks open, it will open like a flower to breathe and unfold the feathers like petals, Great Blue Heron emerging small and imperfect to become, the only real and perfect mirror of the Self. And so continue, until in Time, all this is taken, and Great Blue Herons pass from this place like a whisper in thin in blue in air.


Field Note:

Great Blue Heron Rookery

Great Blue Heron rookeries are frequently found in beaver ponds. The trees that drown as a result of the beaver’s enterprise provide perfect nest sites, sometimes two and three nests to the tree. But only ponds that are wide enough and deep enough to provide a sufficient separation from the shore – and thereby safety – will do. And such places are increasingly uncommon. The reason for the rarity is the great antipathy some of the human abutters feel toward the beavers. When the beavers construct their damns the humans are often faced with drowned lawns and water in their basements. Having built too close to streams, it is more convenient to blame the animals. The benefits – flood control, great diversity of wildlife, the pristine beauty of the pond (and the very source of great blue herons) – are ignored. Great blue herons are their own justification. But for us they beg a larger a question: What is the quality of human life without them?


Mark Seth Lender reading Rhapsody on Living on Earth (Public Radio International) :

Great Blue Heron Gliding

Audio MP3


Sound Bite

Great Blue Heron about to feed begging chicks

in the early morning a great blue heron rookery is filled with birdsong and the occasional basso profundo “Clunk!” of a bullfrog. But when the heron nests are crowded with hungry mouths and a parent is spotted en route with a crop full of food the rookery erupts with a primordial roar. I made the recording below in June at around 5:30 AM. Most of what you hear for the first minute and half is the chicks. Towards the end (at 1 minute 50 seconds) the deep throated Graaaahk! of an adult punctuates the rattling voices of her offspring. Close your eyes and perhaps like me you will imagine dinosaurs, plodding through a swamp, or grazing the salt marsh adjacent some warm inland sea. In fact there were dinosaurs on this very spot. And what we are listening to may not be that different from what they heard 100 million years ago of a summer morning.

Audio MP3


 August 14, 2013  Birds, General No Responses »
Aug 042013

Bear on Ice

(C) 2013 Mark Seth Lender
All Rights Reserved

There is a polar bear swimming through the slush at the edge of the floe. This year’s ice and last year’s ice and the porous remnant of a berg. All that melt, dispersed, makes the sea air cold. The bear, only head and face and sometimes the highpoint of his backbone above water looks cold although he is working too hard for that, trying to get away, from us. Seeing this, Gunnar Ross, the ship’s Master cuts his engines to dead slow so there is more drift than way. To give him room. The bear… speeds up. He looks back, and his lips part in a low growl we cannot hear for the idling of the screws and the steering gear and the floebergs scrapping the steel of the hull. He turns into a channel in the ice, and disappears. There he is again much closer. We’ve veered off, changing course; but the bear has changed course also and come out the wrong way – toward us. Now in his mind he is sure. We are after him. He is going to die. He sneers, and paddles on, faster and harder.

He is making 5 knots maybe 6 which seems an impossible speed and the wake breaks out behind him 40 meters in a widening V. It is too much. Even for a polar bear (who can swim without drowning 300 nautical miles). It is all being spent, right here.

The polar bear cannot give up will not part from his will to survive it is not in him. Nor is it in him to continue like this. In a last gambit he breaks stride and kneeing up like a child at a chair that is too high, clambers onto a flat of ice, the sea pouring out of his hair.

Water cascades from his face, the underbelly and swaying paws as he half walks, – half runs.

Then slows…. And looks…

And comes to a stop. He stands broadside to our retreating ship, the dark skin showing through beneath the saturated white of him. And his head comes up, and follows as we head away and knows that he has won.

His rest is brief and all he needs, and clambers slowly back into the sea as polar bears have always done and swims, away, from our small sample of Humanity and into the brash ice, and beyond, until he vanishes among the icebergs that are white and blue as clouds on a fragile… glass… blue… sky.

Field Note:
In the high Canadian Arctic, crossing Hudson Strait with Adventure Canada, we had an encounter with a polar bear at the floe edge. The bear saw us and fled. A bear swimming away from you is not much of a story, and in any case, not the story you want to tell. The protocol (and I take it very seriously) is never stress the wildlife, much less chase after it. The ship’s captain was Gunnar Roos, a man on his retirement voyage with fifty years of mastery under his belt, and he did exactly the right thing: Back off, turn away. I was aware of that at the time but as a passenger on a ship the length of a football field it was not, in any case, anything I could control. I stood on the mezzanine deck, my tripod braced against the gutter below the rail, and kept my eye glued to the camera.

The polar bear was at a considerable distance and despite the longest lens I own only a small moving mark in my field of vision, indistinguishable from the floe ice except for the long wake peeling off behind him. Plus it looked like what I was getting was the back of his head. I had little hope of anything worthwhile from any of this. But the other rule right up there with “Thou Shalt Not Chase” is “KEEP SHOOTING!” So I did. And a good thing too.

It was not until that night when I scanned through the shots I’d taken of the encounter (several hundred frames) that I fully realized what had happened. I knew the ship had slowed, but not that the bear had sped up. Yet, there he was gaining more distance than we were giving way. Nor could I know (before the images were enlarged) that every time he looked back at us he grimaced, curling his mouth into a sneer. This is the great value of using the camera as a notebook, I am able to see what I could not otherwise have seen.

There is a low vocalization of displeasure bears make when they are afraid. I’ve heard polar bears do that before, mostly at each other, accompanied by that very same facial expression, that little sneer which just reveals the tips of the teeth. That was what I was seeing in the frames, the polar bear looking over his shoulder, paddling on, the expression on his face so clear I could not help but hear it clear as a ship’s bell: I am afraid. Yet there was nothing to be afraid of – not from us – and we’d been doing everything we could to indicate this to the bear. It was not perhaps 10 minutes later, when he climbed out onto the ice and the revelation was virtually forced upon him that he got the point.

I am used to animals, predators in particular, being far more aware and in control of circumstance than me. The way I usually put it is like this: Polar bear will outsmart you. In polar bear country, especially when you are on foot, It’s not a bad thing to keep that in mind. Yet, here was a polar bear, full-grown, scars on his face to prove his prowess and experience, and he was completely mistaken. Much as we might be followed by a polar bear, who simply happened to be going the same way.


Adventure Canada (Arctic Tours)

Jillian Dickens, Travel Specialist

Canadian Tourism Commission

Mark Seth Lender reading Bear on Ice on Public Radio International’s syndicated program, Living on Earth


 August 4, 2013  General, Mammals, Polar Bear No Responses »||