A Trip Through Time On the Wings of Herons

The grey heron moved fearlessly and fast, long black sticklike legs pounding the ground as it spread awesome silk grey wings…

– ‘Martin the Warrior’ (Brian Jacques)

I was already running late for a biology class. With earbuds in and ‘Saint Dymphna’ playing, coffee cup balanced precariously in one hand while the other one manned the wheel, the morning found me barrelling down Highway 114, amid the eighteen wheelers hauling loads of gravel and beaten ranch trucks dragging enclosed stock trailers full of wild-eyed, bewildered cattle. Overhead, a steady procession of transparent wispy clouds reduced the risen sun to a pale yellow sphere in the new eastern sky. A front was on its way in, promising rain. Thick grey nebulous clouds obscured what would have otherwise been a clear blue January sky. A red-tailed hawk soared on an updraft, flapping its great wingspan for stability as it collided with an invisible gust that threatened to veer it in a different direction.  As I crossed the bridge over Salt Creek I habitually looked up at the overhanging power line, as a belted kingfisher can frequently be seen perched there, its keen eyes perusing the shallow water surface below for ripples caused by gambusia and leopard frogs. The bird wasn’t here today, nor were the motley flock of pigeons that reside beneath the bridge and  fly in seemingly tireless circles with the approach of every passing car.

After the bridge the land opens up on either side into a broad, plowed field which is used for growing watermelons and cantaloupes. In the summer the giant ovaline green fruits of the former and veined tan globes of the latter litter the ground before being harvested, and it is not unusual to see workers there day and night, some operating heavy machinery and the less fortunate stooped low, backs bent, with paisley bandannas tied over sweat-shiny faces and wide-brimmed straw hats combating the merciless sun. But summer is still half a year away, and for the moment the ground lies fallow and cold. To the south it is composed of barren dry clods of alluvial sand and clay deposited by seasonal overflows from the west fork Trinity River, but to the north a sea of high straw-yellow grass stretches out, its far banks governed by a treeline nearly a mile away, with the sandy Cottonwood Creek trickling over the land from the east. The highway runs through the middle of these two plots, atop a steep hill that provides a view of the scene from above, like driving atop a levee. Between the endless caravans of semis flanked by commuter cars and pickups the road is a busy one with a narrow shoulder. Dozens of carcasses of unfortunate wildlife lie along the white lines, coyotes and whitetail deer and raccoons and skunks and opossums, their presence a testament to the encroachment of man as well as the ignored speed limit. It is a dangerous place to break down, and a foolish one to pull over on.  On this grim black asphalt ribbon that invokes so much carnal destruction it is wise to keep one’s eyes on the road at all times, but on this particular morning I saw something from the corner of my eye as I passed, and I turned my head in the direction of the grass sea, where the lifting fog penetrated by the struggling rays of sunlight cast a primeval-looking spell on the land.

The early morning mist had just risen from the mud of the nearby creek. Towering above it were the crowns of oak trees, their boughs deceivingly bright with what appeared to be vibrant spring growth but was in reality the parasitic evergreen mistletoe. The tall grass waved in the remnants of the morning wind, and the dusky hue broken by the thick layers of elongated grey clouds added to the effect, giving the landscape a vaguely prehistoric look, as if I were crossing a bridge in time, one paved with modern-day blacktop made from ancient crinoids and other plants compressed over the eons and extracted as petroleum.

I took all this in in the span of a moment: a long, snakelike head popped from the grass, mouse-grey feathers mixed with those of stark white, with a familiar crest standing straight back at a slightly elevated angle from the graceful neck like a stubborn cowlick. The daggerlike beak pointed forward, orange as a flame-heated knife blade. It was a great blue heron, a noble and savage avian predator of swamp and creek and marsh and stock pond. Its scientific name of Ardea herodias sounds much more regal and befitting. This bane of frogs, fish and snakes dominates the shoreline from Canada to the Galapagos Islands. It is the largest heron in North America, standing over 54″ in height and boasting an impressive wingspan that can reach six feet across.

Closeup of head and bill of a roadkilled A. herodias

The bird lurched forward with a single fluid glide of movement, its bill punching the air, and I stole a glance back at the road, checked my mirrors. When I looked back I could see more herons. The sudden sight of them standing there, stalking the denizens of the grass with maddening patience struck an overwhelming chord with a mental image of a long-extinct dromeosaur from the late Cretaceous, dienonychus or velociraptor. Velociraptors were residents of Mongolia some 75million years before this foggy morning, and recent fossil evidence in the form of a forelimb containing what is believed by scientists to be a quill knob suggests that these last of the agile therapod dinosaurs may very well have sported feathers.  If dinosaurs were indeed endothermic, these would have supported the regulation of their body temperature as those of the heron and other modern birds do today.

As these magnificent rulers of the Cottonwood Creek hunted on long legs, their narrow tapering heads scanning the ground for prey, alert golden eyes detecting the slightest bits of movement, I could easily see the resemblance between the extinct and modern species separated by the ages, the shrinking back of the great seas, and the dawn of man.

Feet of A. herodias, showing resemblance to small therapod dinosaurs

As I passed over the Cottonwood Creek bridge it dawned on me that such a passing glimpse of nature’s transcending, ever-changing beauty simply would not do, and at the risk of being late to class I turned the truck around and passed back over, where I pulled onto what little shoulder that was available. The herons were still there, four of them in all, their elegant silhouettes beset against the grass stalks. Cars zoomed by me, buzzing in my ear like giant hornets as they passed only a couple feet from my driver’s side door. I had to get a picture, to at very least attempt to freeze-frame such a pristine conjunction of time and location. A thought fell upon me as I waited for a break in the traffic flow: a vision of a state trooper pulling behind me to ask why I deemed it necessary to park my vehicle along such a dangerously busy highway atop a steep hill with no shoulder.

“I have a perfectly justifiable explanation, officer. I just pulled over to take a shot of herons” was a response that could easily be misinterpreted. But I decided I would risk life and excuse and take my chances. After a few minutes the last car zipped by, and I bolted from the truck and headed down the hill. I stopped mid-way to take my first shot,which was too far away to capture much depth, but I was glad I did, for as I got closer to the fenceline the herons, which were still nearly fifty meters away, seemed to simultaneously take note of my presence. Had I been standing there in the late Cretaceous this would have most likely meant my untimely end as the dromeosaurs gathered together as a unified pack, but the herons spooked and took to their great wings, objects of perfect creation in flight, transforming from velociraptors into pterosaurs before my mind’s eye.

Dorsal view of a roadkilled A. herodias, showing resemblance to ancient pterosaurs

The fog was lifting now, and its departure was beginning to reveal patches of unnatural white between the oaks in the background. These were the rooves of barns. In front of them, a series of shiny new pumpjacks sat on open grassless ground, their crescent-shaped steel heads fixed onto craning beams that gave them the appearance of giant metal grasshoppers. The clouds remained, stacks of slate grey and pastel blue, unchanged over the countless centuries. The lifting of the fog had left the grass wet abd bright, and it was among it that I spied a lone, defiant heron who had refused to fly upon my approach. I snapped a picture, grateful for the opportunity, and then turned to leave. As I did a second heron sailed in like an avian hang-glider. It landed with exquisite form and grace, folding its wings up as delicately as an origami. Not wanting to further disturb the birds, I froze the frame in my mind and climbed the hill back to the truck. Less than four minutes had passed on that unexplainable scale of time. Somewhere far back along its track the Great Age of the Dinosaurs had ended, the seas had dried, and mammals ran through clumps of cycads that were on their way out while early birds tested out their new wings. A blink and here we were, making stone tools and driving automobiles and selling out to smartphones and blogging about great blue herons via the worldwide web. Millions of years and a three hour biology lab. For whatever all of it was worth, my moment  with the great blue herons of Cottonwood Creek that morning would make the time fly by.

Arnold, K.A. & G. Kenedy. 2007. Birds of Texas. Lone Pine Publishing International p. 92

Castro, Joseph. LiveScience. Velociraptor: facts about the ‘speedy thief’ https://www.livescience.com/23922-velociraptor-facts.html

Pough, Richard. 1951. Audubon Water Bird Guide. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc. pp. 40-41

Sattler, H.R. 1983. The New Illustrated Dinosaur Dictionary. NY:Lothrop, Lee & Shepard p. 337-338.

Turner, A.H., Makovicky, P.J., & M.A. Norell. 2007. Feather quill knobs in the dinosaur Velociraptor. Science, Vol 317 (5845) p.1721

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