Gulping Down Memories

The sun dipping below the tree line and casting a spotlight toward the dam, all is quiet around the Sligo Creek retention ponds. Maybe sixty Canada geese drift across the water in silent reflection.

Great blue heron catches a fish.
Great Blue Heron Norm!

Suddenly, they all lift their heads, look at the deep blue sky over the dam and start honking like crazy. I whip my head around and look up to follow their line of sight. A magnificent great blue heron lit up like an angel descending from heaven is gliding down, his head held high and his un-moving wings stretched as far out as they can go. He’s not moving a muscle, as if he’s using only the power of thought to guide his landing.

I gasp for air, dumbstruck by the unexpected sight swooping down from right to left in a monochrome blue haze.

The bird jams on air brakes at the last second and comes to a stop on the big pond. All the geese watch the heron stride toward his favorite seat at the edge of the water bar and call out to him in booming harmony like they know him.

Norm!” I swear I hear in my head, as the big fella settles in. I notice that he has upside-down exclamation points bending around his scapular plumes, so “Norm” from “Cheers” it is.

“How’s the world treating you today?” they ask, or so I imagine.

“It’s a kill-or-be-killed world, and raccoons are always trying to bite me in the tailfeathers,” he retorts.

Great Blue Heron Norm saddles up on the shoreline, small talk over. He sticks his neck out and peers into the water, hoping that whatever is in it doesn’t notice him. Then he inches into the pond — his searing, yellow-eyed gaze penetrating the murky brown stormwater runoff. His concentration is so intense that beads of sweat would be pouring off his brain, if herons could sweat.

I have spent the last few years watching herons hunt at the retention ponds; I have never seen one actually catch something. I’ve never quite believed that fish can even live here. Then again, why would herons keep coming back to barren waters?

Norm has no time for my existential questions.

He cocks his neck, jabs his bill into the water like a spear, and comes up with something sticking sideways out of his mouth! I can’t see what it is with my naked eyes as predator and prey are too far away. He tiptoes back to the shore, clutching his catch in his beak. My photographer wife is firing away with her telephoto lens. It’s a brown and yellowish fish, an actual fish! A green sunfish, or bluegill, maybe? The bird and fish lock eyes — one happy and the other horrified. Norm flips the fish around and … gulp!

He chases the meal with a chug of pondwater, looking not the least bit sheepish or remorseful: that’s what herons do.

I exhale, only now realizing that the sight of Norm had sucked the air out of my lungs again. I hear an awkward laugh tumble out, too: I feel sort of bad for the fish, but I’m a much bigger fan of the blue heron – and I just witnessed the awe of something primeval.

Take a look at four poems about Great Blue Heron Norm!

See more photos of Norm!


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