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Nellie The Night Heron

To best view Nellie's photos, please click on "slideshow" at the top right corner of the page.

My name is Sue Sloan, I live in Shell Beach, California. My neighbor, Terry Lilley and I have been studying Night Herons in and around our oceanside neighborhood since 2005. Combined we have spent well over 1,500 hours studying night heron habits and habitat.

Night Herons are large mainly nocturnal birds that are active in the evening, night and early morning. They feed at low tide on the reef for food such as fish, eel and octopus. At high tide they feed along the flat coastal bluffs for rodents, bugs and frogs. People rarely notice this impressive bird until nesting season between February and August. During those months they make flimsy stick nests in trees near the ocean and can be heard making loud "kwocking" calls. Night Herons make loud noises day and night, often times to the dismay of people within earshot. A neighbor once exclaimed to us, "It sounds like there was a murder being committed up there!" The birds are also known for making quite a mess with their large droppings. This definately draws the attention and ire of people, especially if these droppings happen to land on sidewalks, driveways or vehicles.

Night Heron nests require dense trees because the leaves, branches, and limbs protect them from being destroyed or damaged by wind and weather. Night herons lay from one to four blue eggs and the chicks grow very quickly. At about four weeks the large young birds start leaving their nests. On the Central Coast of California they live in trees that provide easy access to, and a view of the reef. If there is not a sufficient number of trees they perch on homes and fences. This can be dangerous for them because they are slow to take flight and are typically low flyers. This combination makes them victims of fast moving vehicles and the young especially can become victims of dogs and cats.

On Morro Avenue in Shell Beach there were five nesting trees and several fledgling trees in 2005. Thirteen young night herons left the nests and began learning to feed on the reef at low tide. During the winter of 2005 there were large waves which hindered the young herons ability to find enough food on the reef. Combined with very little area of open bluffs to find food, this caused 11 out of 13 babies to die.

In July 2006 Andrews Real Estate hired Bunyon Brothers Tree Trimming to remove an old growth pine tree at the end of Morro Avenue on property Andrews bought to develop. Both Andrews Realtors and Bunyon Brothers were informed about the nests and how important this tree was for the herons and that removing it at this time would be a violation of the Federal Act. This was filmed by, and aired on KSBY TV News. The tree had active nests in it and was very important for the young night herons to observe the reef and learn to hunt for food. The tree is the one behind the night heron in the picture on this gallery cover. The tree no longer exists. The realtor had the tree trimming company remove it after telling the news reporter on the air that they were not going to do so. Due to the destruction of the trees only three night young night herons were able to survive in 2006 in our neighborhood! This is in direct violation of the Federal Migratory Bird Act! The City of Pismo Beach allows important nesting trees to be trimmed and/or completely removed, which is simply a crime against these birds.

During the winter of 2005 we observed one young night heron that was still alive; it was feeding on snails and worms in a neighbors yard. It was starving. We decided to supplement its diet to help it survive since human actions had hindered it's survival chances. We observed it getting night crawlers from a well-soaked lawn after the automatic sprinklers did their job. We started buying night crawlers and throwing one out to her each morning on our walk for coffee at the beach. We named this heron "Nellie". We've seen Nellie almost every day since November of 2005. She is a very special wild bird and often allows us an unusually close vantage point for photos.

The gallery begins with photos of Nellie's parents. Next you see the tree where she was hatched, and the one she lived in most of the year until it was illegally removed. There are many photos of Nellie as she grew, and photos of Nellie's siblings which all died. There is a photo of Nellie's sibling that died on the ground in a storm because it didn't have a safe tree in which to live, or an area to find food.

The photo that shows Nellie with bright blue around her eyes is showing her in full breeding colors. She had a successful breeding season in late Spring 2007 with three chicks. In early Spring 2008 she again had breeding colors and behaviors. One of our goals with Nellie was never to domesticate her. Her chicks do not come close to us, even when she sits on our leg and gets a treat of smelt, small prickle back eel, or octopus which we collect from the reef. Her young always keep a very safe distance from us. We know instinct plays a huge part in their hesitance to get close, but we also truly believe that Nellie has taught them not to trust humans, even us.

The bluffs are quickly eroding due to natural causes. The combination of natural erosion and building on the bluffs is decreasing dramatically areas for the night herons to feed. If the City of Pismo Beach continues to allow people to remove trees without proper studies, which is against federal law, many more night herons will die. If you would like to see something done to stop the removal of Nellie's trees, please contact Terry at coastreptl@aol.com, Sue at SBeach99@charter.net. Please also call Randy Bloom at the City of Pismo Beach and ask him to pass on to the City of Pismo that we need to respect wildlife in our beautiful city. They city can adopt laws that require a biologist to check trees for nests before they are trimmed or removed.

You can best view Nellie's photos by clicking on slide show in the upper right corner of this page. Photos toward the end show Nellie hunting on the reef for food. Occasionally Terry and Sue give her a little assistance by lifting some of the bigger rocks. Nellie is in full adulthood and quite capable of taking care of herself. However we have grown so fond of her, we revel in our contact with her and love to spend time with her when she comes around. She has also become quite a hit in the neighborhood with children and adults alike.

It is now March 2009. The last time we saw Nellie was on July 1, 2008. Terry and I left for a SCUBA diving trip on the 4th, and three days prior Nellie stopped showing up. We were very disappointed, but fully expected her to be back when we returned. We had been on a few trips which kept us away for over a week since she had been in our lives, but she always came back when we returned. Twice we had people who promised to take our place with daily visits while we were gone, but she didn't come until we had returned.

Our sincere hope is that she knew she needed to remove herself from the human world completely for the preservation of her species. With that thought in mind we say, "Good hunting to you, Nellie." "May your world be filled with an abundance of blennys, small prickle-back eels, and octupus from the tidepools." We also must add, "May your world be forever void of tree trimmers."

Thank you for your interest, Sue Sloan and Terry Lilley.

For local questions or concerns, please contact Sue at SBeach99@charter.net or call 805-710-8246.



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THE NIGHT HERON, as written by Lowell J. Stirratt
The little night heron, is a bird we seldom see,
It spends the daylight hours, nestled in A tree,
But when the sun has lowered, and daylight turned to dusk,
This amazing little bird, comes out as all birds must,
It's normal source of nourishment, exposed, when tides at neap,
And so it flutters down, to rocks, and pools, not deep,
Sardines and minnows, are it's favorite fare,
As it hops and skitters everywhere.

As we strolled the bank one night at eventide,
We chanced upon A scene, made our eyes just open wide,
For here was A night heron, that this couple had named Nellie,
Sitting on it's friends knee, like a stool in A Deli,
No menu is required, they know that I like fish,
And krill would be something, I hardly dare to wish,
I'll have a snack of minnows, five or six will do fine,
Then off into the dusk, my feathered friends to find.
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