I’VE CHOSEN THE perfect day to join the Heron Habitat Helpers gathered at Commodore Park in Magnolia: Great blue herons have been flying nearby for weeks, but this day, they’ve finally started selecting breeding nests. Males are collecting branches to build up their chosen nests and attract females.
“They’ve started deciding, ‘This is mine,’ ” Linda Marsh tells me, as we gaze toward the treetops.
She has been with the all-volunteer Heron Habitat Helpers since 2013. Her dad, 20-year helper Mike Marsh, is here in a cap bearing a heron. A scientist by training, he likes the numbers aspect: From late winter through summer, trained volunteer monitors keep a running count of how many birds show up that year, how many chicks are born and how many of those survive long enough to fly off on their own.
The group has set up a table in the park with information for folks who stop to gaze at Seattle’s official bird. Volunteers answer questions.
“I think it’s important for people to know that we have wildlife right here in the city,” says volunteer Marla Master.
The group was founded in 2001, when neighbors Heidi Carpine and Donna Kostka noticed the nearby Kiwanis Ravine, then home to many heron nests, was full of invasive plants and trash. “They kind of single-handedly rallied up the neighborhood and started protecting the herons,” Master says.
The first step: habitat restoration. The group cleaned up the ravine — ripping down ivy, digging out blackberry bushes and adding native plants.
They still do cleanup and planting projects in heron territory, but they branched into tracking the number of herons and how well the birds are faring. “That data is available to Fish and Wildlife and anyone who’s doing any kind of research,” Master said.
The herons eventually relocated to the towering trees at Commodore Park, where it is often easy to see them from the grassy area below. By late April and early May, visitors will be able to hear heron chicks yelling for food. (This is the largest rookery in Seattle. Herons also nest on the University of Washington campus, at Marymoor Park and at the north end of Lake Washington in Kenmore.)
Heron Habitat Helpers hosts public events where members set up telescopes so people can get a better view of the birds’ activity.
Why herons? At 4 feet tall and with a 6-foot wingspan, the birds are easy to spot and a delight to watch. “They’re such a fun combination of elegance and awkwardness and beauty,” Linda Marsh says. “When you see herons, you can see how birds are dinosaurs.”
Carol Tofle had just moved to Ballard in 2019 when a stranger on a bicycle noticed her looking up at heron nests in the Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden and directed her to the Heron Habitat Helpers on the other side of the Ballard Locks. She joined on the spot. “If I had a chance to go back and start my life over again, I would be a wildlife biologist, because I just love watching animal behavior,” she says.
The male birds on this day at the park pause now and then to fluff their feathers and squawk in a “Look at me!” show. Some of them already have paired up and are clacking beaks or intertwining their long necks with mates. As we talk, volunteers scan the trees, looking for significant moments. Some of the herons are already, er, working on reproduction. “Someone’s getting busy,” Tofle says with a chuckle.