The Working Waterfront

Alive in the time of herons

Encounter while swimming prompts reflection

By Courtney Naliboff
Posted 2023-10-18
Last Modified 2023-10-18

On an overcast August day, my teammates and I set off on a training swim down the Millstream. We were building up mileage ahead of our 5K fundraiser for LifeFlight of Maine, our fourth such venture in as many years.

As we passed the waterfront house that serves as our halfway point, we noticed a great blue heron perched on shore to our right. A quick turn of the head revealed a second one to our left.

Of all the birds North Haven has to offer—and there is a robust variety—the great blue heron is the most charismatic to me. While I love the rapidly plunging terns, the high circling eagles and ospreys, the disproportionately aggressive hummingbirds, and the chatty warblers, herons stir my heart.

We were awed, seeking to imprint the moment on our minds.

Our swim team, officially Team North Haven, adopted the heron as our mascot a few years ago after several sightings. They supposedly represent fierce independence, a trait we all happily claim during our cold-water miles.

As we drew nearer, the heron to our left took off, unfurling its massive wings and tucking its neck and legs. It flew low over the water, coming within feet of our heads. We gasped in unison, following its flight with our eyes as we treaded water. It landed not far ahead as if waiting for us to catch up. We obliged, swimming on.

I saw an Instagram post recently, a meme to the effect of “You could have been born any time, but you were born when great blue herons are alive.” The thought has stuck with me—that I could be in a time or place without these quiet giants, where their niche might be filled by a pterodactyl or an archeopteryx or some future majestic flyer.

The presence of herons also implies the presence of food for herons—fish, frogs, insects—themselves harbingers of the health of an ecosystem. Also implied is the delightful thought that somewhere hidden on the island there are enormous nests with baby herons.

As we approached the heron, it once again silently took flight. It seemed unperturbed by us, flying on to find more minnows or crabs or to offer us an incentive to keep going. It swooped so near our heads that we instinctively ducked out of the way. Far from threatened, we felt acknowledged as fellow water-lovers.

The heron landed just ahead once more, taking off for a final time as we entered the harbor. We were awed, seeking to imprint the moment on our minds.

I had a second delightful heron encounter on Fresh Pond, the island’s reservoir. As I kayaked through the water lilies, blooming in white spikes and yellow globes, a heron suddenly rose aloft from behind a clump of alders. It landed a little further down the pond and I followed, gliding on water as it did in the air, acknowledging that we are two of a kind, dependent on and loving the fresh and salt water of North Haven.

Courtney Naliboff teaches theatre, music, and writing at North Haven Community School and lives on the island. She may be contacted at