As a Cape Codder, you’ve seen your share of Great Blue Herons. Birders and non-birders alike can appreciate these big, charismatic wading birds found year-round here on the archipelago. You might even think you know them pretty well.
They’re big, blue, and herons – what else do you really need to know to pick one out? But would you know a foreign doppelganger if you saw one? A stunt double, an imposter, a look-alike? Young Nantucket birding phenom Skyler Kardell did, and that’s why on Saturday he found the first record for the lower 48 states of the Old World version of the Great Blue Heron, the sneakily similar Gray Heron.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it – this is a bird that no one has ever documented in the lower 48 states. Skyler has been racking up nice bird records all summer while working for the local land trust on Tuckernuck, that mysterious private island just west of Nantucket. With no paved roads, harbors, or utilities, the island is seldom birded except by resident ornithologist Dick Veit, professor at College of Staten Island and co-author of the seminal 1993 work Birds of Massachusetts. Beyond the searching eyes and optics of almost all other birders, Tuckernuck seemed an unlikely place for such a discovery, but luckily, Skyler was on the case.
My favorite part of his field notes, submitted to eBird, was when, right at the moment he is making the ornithological discovery of a lifetime, a non-birding islander pulls up to speak with him about a “missing pineapple pool floaty." Many birders I know, probably including myself, would not even have turned around, but Skyler politely engaged before returning to his photography. In birding terms, this was as if, right when she was about to isolate radium for the first time, someone entered Marie Curie’s lab to talk to her about a soap opera.
Apparently, this very same individual Gray Heron had summered on Nova Scotia, where birders happily documented its stay from late June through late August. After the bird showed up stateside, some folks zoomed in on photos and documented similarities in some individual wing feathers, like some ornithological version of CSI, proving they were one and the same bird. Remarkably, this same, incognito bird was discovered twice, 400 miles and three weeks apart.
Compared with Great Blue Herons, Gray Herons are slightly smaller, shorter-necked, and paler, lacking the reddish tones on the neck and thighs. If you know Great Blues really well, you might know that they have a rusty spot at the bend of the wing, visible at rest and in flight – Gray Herons instead show white there. Other than that, they are nearly identical in look and habits, with a few exceptions. In Europe, where birds have been coexisting with human settlements far longer, Gray Herons have formed breeding rookeries in dense cities, and can be seen walking around street markets and perching on dumpsters in Amsterdam, bolder even than the gulls.
I suspect some Gray Herons have gone undetected, passed off as Great Blue Herons with a quick, uncritical look. I could easily have done so – we seldom scrutinize the common and expected. Skyler and a team of Nantucket birders rediscovered the bird the next day, Sunday the 6th, marking the last known sighting. It could turn up anywhere next, so be ready. And if you see what looks like a Great Blue Heron coming ashore aboard a pineapple pool floaty, look no further - you have found the famous Gray Heron of Tuckernuck.