UNCOMPAHGRE VALLEY – Just north of Country Road 8 and the turnoff for the Sleeping Indian Ranch, look east into the cottonwoods lining the right bank of Cow Creek. High in the treetops you’ll see a couple dozen very large bird nests. More than likely, there will be some very large birds standing on the nests, or on a nearby branch, stretching their very long necks. And, if you’re lucky, one or two of the creatures will float in on wings as wide as a very tall man.
Great Blue Herons are not uncommon in North America, or to the Uncompahgre Valley, particularly the area around the Ridgway Reservoir. But they are an arresting sight nonetheless. You’ll see them standing in the river on long stick legs, poised, still, waiting to spear a fish with their dagger-like bills. Or flying low along the water, slow strong wing beats with stick legs trailing behind and their necks tucked in, like meanders in a stream, between their white heads and blue-gray bodies.
Based only on my amateur observation, this particular heronry has grown dramatically in the last few years. (District Wildlife Manager for the Ridgway area, Kelly Crane, was unavailable to comment for this story.) At least in this one spot, the herons appear to be thriving as never before.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Montrose Manager Renzo DelPiccolo, while claiming not to be an expert, nevertheless contributed that he knows of just one other heronry in the region, at the Escalante State Wildlife Area in Delta County.
“It’s nice to see the herons’ ecosystem is functioning properly,” he said, referring to the Ridgway group. As top predators, “if the aquatic life – small fish, crayfish, frogs, even mice – isn’t in there due to heavy metals, etc., you won’t see [the herons].”
The Uncompahgre is “pretty healthy,” DelPiccolo said, “below the Ridgway dam. A lot of the minerals are deposited in the lake itself. Which allows the river below to be pretty healthy.”
About this time of year, the female herons each lay three to six pale blue eggs. The eggs are incubated for about 28 days. When they hatch both parents feed the young with regurgitated food. Families usually stick together, including the yearlings, and return to the same communal nests year after year.
It is unclear if the local population migrates south for the winter. Great Blue Herons east of the Mississippi do migrate to Mexico and Central America. But western herons sometimes stay put through even quite cold winters. I have seen herons flying through the river mist on sub-zero mornings at the Uncompahgre River Bridge in Ridgway. The fact that the Uncompahgre doesn’t freeze perhaps supports the notion that the local birds do winter over here.
Herons are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. Their silhouettes are unmistakable, whether standing like a statue in the water, or flying with their stately, leisurely cadence. Very soon, there’ll be a new crop of fledglings in the treetops.