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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: Sertoma Park offers habitat for herons

Green herons are habitat specialists. They like dank slack water and heavy cover. The coulee in the park provides exactly that.

Green heron.
Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – The green heron is not a common bird in our area, but at certain times and places, a green heron sighting is a sure thing. The time is now. The place is Sertoma Park in Grand Forks. Green herons have nested in the park for several years, contributing to its reputation as the birding hot spot in Grand Forks.

    Green herons are habitat specialists. They like dank slack water and heavy cover. The coulee in the park provides exactly that. During nesting season, the birds are hard to find. This year’s young have fledged, however, and at this time of year, the herons are obvious if not conspicuous.

    This is a small heron, diminutive compared to its relative, the great blue heron. Unlike the great blue heron, which is a colony nester, the green heron prefers its own company. My visit to Sertoma Park on Tuesday, July 12, turned up three individuals. My guess is that they are a family group.

    The birds were not hard to find. I spotted the first as I approached the coulee bridge. The bird flushed and defecated – a kind of signature of this species. This habit has earned it a common name, shitepoke – a name that I’ve heard applied to other wading birds.

    In flight, the green heron appears quite dark and rather plump. Its wingbeats are slow and its head is drawn back, creating a boxlike impression. Often, the bird calls in flight. This call is loud, assertive and unmistakable.


    The heron is a slow, deliberate feeder. One of the birds I watched perched on a snag sticking out of the dark water of the coulee. Another moved slowly through the water. At times, the birds extended their necks, giving them a pointed, statuesque look.

    Both of these behaviors are tied to foraging. Green herons are fish eaters, and they lure fish to them. The monograph on the species in the American Ornithologists’ series on North American birds declares that green herons “are among the few tool-using birds, fabricating various baits that entice fish to where they can grab them.”

    So much for the notion of “bird brains.”

    The first reference I found to house finches in the Herald’s online archive was in 1989, when Milt Sather called about a house finch he’d seen in Greenbush, Minn. The column about the sighting was printed Nov. 2 that year.

    Not surprisingly, given its attraction to dank, dark water, the green heron is a bird of the east and south of North America. Our area is at the northwestern edge of its breeding range. It occurs in the Devils Lake area and along the James River, as well as in the Red River Valley – but again, only in favorable habitat.

    Although the green heron was the object of my visit to Sertoma Park, my excursion turned up broods of duicks, mostly mallards. At times the broods mingled, creating flotillas of as many as 20 ducklings and several hens. The hens became quite aggressive, at times, rushing each other. This broke the families up, each swimming away. But not for long. In a short while, the conglomeration of ducklings formed again.

    Next to the herons and the ducks, the most obvious wild creatures were the rabbits, which thrive in the park.

    Human visitors were few at the time of my visit. A couple of runners and a power walker passed me as I peered into the relative gloom of the coulee. This was at first light. Later in the day, the park becomes more crowded with human visitors, ranging from exercise enthusiasts to families using the playgrounds or picnic tables.

    The park is at 34th Street and 11th Avenue North. Altru Hospital is just to the east.


    I’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to Sertoma Park. While Suezette was treated at Altru’s Cancer Center, I walked off my anxiety in Sertoma Park, so I have a personal attachment to it.

    The Grand Forks Park District has brightened the park by planting wildflowers. There’s also a grove of trees, where specimens are labeled with names and distinguishing characteristics.

    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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