My apologies for a two week hiatus from Morning Joy. During my absence I traveled to an amazing rookery tucked inside the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in northeastern Florida. Every spring hundreds of wild wading birds choose the trees and shrubs over the zoo’s natural alligator pond as their breeding home. A boardwalk leading through the area puts visitors just feet away from the birds and their nests. Male birds crisscross the sky in search of nest building material.
The female Tricolored Heron weaves the nest on the branches of a short tree or tall shrub while her mate goes in search of another stick to break off and bring back. Soon, the female will lay three to seven eggs in the carefully woven nest. Both birds take turns sitting on the eggs during the three week incubation period. Note the beautiful breeding plumage on this Tricolored parent–blue face and bill, red eyes, white head plume and rusty plumed back.
We arrived at the rookery the day after the chicks in this nest began to hatch. Mother and father took turns sitting on the nest and protecting the babies. This chick is three days old.
Occasionally, when all of the chicks were asleep, the parents left briefly to forage for food. Upon returning, the parent would regurgitate small fish onto the floor of the nest. The babies would then feed on this highly nutritious, partially digested food.
During the heat of the day and when the parent sensed danger, the bird would gently cover the babies with its wings and settle down, completely hiding the chicks–a perfect picture of security. Periodically, the parent would stand to allow the chicks to move around and would do a bit of housekeeping with its bill; repositioning sticks and discarding unwanted material. You can see this parent’s wings dropped and feathers fluffed to shield the chicks. Doesn’t the parent look tired? I think every parent can relate.
I felt fortunate to get a rare glimpse of these new Tricolored Herons. Wobbly, but curious they held their little feathered heads up for a look at their new world. Eventually, all four eggs hatched. After Tricolored babies are a week old, the parent feeds each chick directly by putting food into their upturned beaks. When they are old enough, the parents teach the chicks to catch fish for themselves.
Tricolored Heron chicks remain in and around the nest for about 35 days. After they fledge, the young birds fly off to lead independent lives. Perhaps they will return to this same rookery one day to raise their young. In the wild Tricolored Herons can live about 17 years. As with all wetland dependent birds, the Tricolored Heron population suffers from loss of habitat. We can all help these little guys survive by protecting the integrity of their shallow water environment. You can find tips for helping them on the Audubon website. I know I want my grandchildren and generations to follow to enjoy the experience of enjoying these wondrous creatures as I have.