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Shaker Village cruise offers closer look at great blue herons

A great blue heron glides through the air at its nesting site, also known as a rookery, along the Kentucky river palisades near Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Ky., on Friday, May 13, 2011. Shaker Village is offering two wildlife cruises to the blue heron rookery aboard their Dixie Belle paddleboat this spring.
A great blue heron glides through the air at its nesting site, also known as a rookery, along the Kentucky river palisades near Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Ky., on Friday, May 13, 2011. Shaker Village is offering two wildlife cruises to the blue heron rookery aboard their Dixie Belle paddleboat this spring.

A colony of great blue herons is nesting in the trees on the limestone cliffs of the Palisades along the Kentucky River, and now's your chance to see them.

Or perhaps you'd rather take to woodland trails for an evening walk, to hear the hoot of an owl after the sun goes down.

Both experiences can be found at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, where the historic site has expanded its reach to the countryside beyond its well-preserved Shaker buildings.

Recently, a boatful of observers took the Dixie Belle riverboat at Shaker Landing for a five-mile wildlife cruise to a blue heron rookery, led by a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources biologist.

The number of great blue herons has been increasing in recent years, so you might have caught sight of these large, elegant birds. They stretch up to four feet tall on stiltlike legs, with a six-foot wingspan, and can be found standing at the edges of waterways, golf course water holes, or home water features, looking for a quick frog lunch or an easy-to-catch koi pond dinner.

John Brunjes, a wildlife biologist in Kentucky's Migratory Bird Program, says that, more than a century ago, herons were hunted for their feathers, which were used in the millenary trade to decorate ladies' hats.

In the 1960s, biologist Rachel Carson wrote about the harmful effects of the pesticide DDT in her landmark work Silent Spring, which brought to light how the chemical weakened the egg shells of bird species that consumed water-dwelling prey, further endangering heron survival. After the pesticide was banned in 1972, avian numbers began to increase, resulting in today's successful survival rates.

During mating and nesting season, from about late February until July in Kentucky, herons roost together in nests grouped high in trees, well away from predators and people. Brunjes says there are rookeries with more than 500 herons in Western Kentucky.

This month, about 20 nests in sycamore trees along a quiet stretch of the Kentucky River by Shaker Landing are occupied by adult herons and their fuzzy youngsters. A typical meal for the kids is regurgitated fish, so things do get messy. The acidic bird droppings often kill the trees, and the odor is reminiscent of a "chicken coop" as you pass by, according to Richard Herring, the Dixie Belle's captain.

Even so, the sight of these magnificent, long-billed birds soaring around their nests, and the young birds stretching their necks to peer out over their branch nests, is amazing.

"Herons are still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act," said Brunjes, who urged onlookers during a recent trip to appreciate the herons quietly from a distance. "They are easily startled, and an excited bird might fall from a nest too early."

Don Pelly, who manages Shaker Village's properties, is an avid birder. Along the river, Pelly identifies birds left and right by listening to their calls. A retired Harrodsburg High School biology teacher, Pelly is still helping people learn.

"That squeaky toy chirp is an Acadian flycatcher," he says, adding that sighting to a host of others, including the prothonotary warbler, spotted sandpiper and Baltimore oriole.

"We have 440 plant and 170 bird species confirmed here at Shaker Village," he says.

In recent years, Pelly has worked with biologists from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to improve habitat by planting native grasses and wildflowers, and to conduct bird counts.

"Protecting the environment is a part of Shaker history" he says.

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