A sign outside the Stow Lake boathouse informs visitors of the variety of bird species that frequent the lake, including the Pied-billed Grebe, Canada Goose, Downy Woodpecker and Hummingbird Allen.
Yet, although about 40 species of birds live in Golden Gate Park, there is one that is Stow Lake’s main attraction: the great blue heron.
“Great Blue Herons are probably America’s most charismatic bird – people love them,” says Nancy DeStefanis, executive director of San Francisco Nature Education and a dedicated woman to the local herons at Stow Lake.
Nancy hands me a set of postcards with colorful photographs. She shows one showing a heron chick with a black Mohawk spreading its little not fully feathered wings, and says with a smile, “See, that’s why I’m doing this. Who couldn’t love these guys? am a sucker for them.
Nancy worked for 10 years to install a camera in Stow Lake so that people could appreciate the birds in their homes and see the chicks as they grow older.
“It takes money, willpower, and collaboration,” she says, and is careful to mention the thank you list on the SF Nature Education website.
Today, that hard work and collaboration is paying off, as the first official Heron SF Nature Education camera is finally installed, and it represents the first camera on a heron colony in all of California.
The camera will serve as a tool to help educate the public about herons, especially children. On its website, SF Nature Education will offer activities for teachers in Grades 3 to 5 so children can learn about the biology and life cycle of the heron, as well as the history of the colony. Nancy will also use the video recordings to continue her 21 years of monitoring and researching the colony.
Nancy first discovered herons nesting at Stow Lake in 1993.
“I was completely stunned – to see a huge bird fly and two other huge birds get up,” she recalls.
Previously a community organizer and lawyer who often volunteered for social justice causes, these nests marked the beginning of a new phase in Nancy’s life.
Through SF Nature Education, she has led the popular and free Heron Watch program for the past 12 years. Adults and children can look through glasses to see herons up close and learn from volunteer naturalists about bird behavior. Children also receive field notebooks to color in the 40 different bird species found in the park.
Stow Lake is located near the center of Golden Gate Park. In the center of Stow Lake is Strawberry Island, so large that the lake almost looks like a river surrounding it. Yet a much smaller island finds a space between the shore and Strawberry – “Heron Island,” as Nancy calls it.
Atop the great Monterey cypress trees on Heron Island, above all the other birds and well above the crowds, Nancy shows me a great blue heron sitting in a nest made of sticks about 5 feet tall. large. This bird is one of their veteran male herons – its tongue sticks out from its neck and this injury makes it recognizable. This is his fifth year of confirmed breeding here. She tells me he’s been sitting like this for days, indicating that the nest is probably full of chicks.
This year there are three heron nests, all in the same tree. Nancy thinks there might even be another “secret nest” in the back. According to Nancy, the chicks should be visible very soon. She expects the same numbers as last year: six, with two per nest. By mid-May, the chicks should start to jump off branches and make their first flights. Once they start experimenting with flight, they will stay around the nest for about two weeks before moving away from the colony. Nancy says they will likely move to other Bay Area parks once they leave Stow Lake.
Depending on the angle of the light, the best time to view the nests through the heron’s camera will be from dawn until around 1 p.m., although it is all day. The video is available on SF Nature Education website.
With public access postponed to the heronry at the Martin Griffin Reserve at Audubon Canyon Ranch, due to the colony’s failure last year, Stow Lake may be the best option for heron viewing in the area of the berry this nesting season.
As we speak, Nancy checks her emails. “I think we’re there right now,” she said. We check a computer and see that the camera is live. She is happy.
“I’m so excited I can’t tell you.” She lets out a happy laugh: “I am such a happy camper. I will remember that day.
If you are going to:
Heron Watch is free and will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays from April 12 to May 17. Signs will be posted at the Stow Lake boathouse to the viewing site, where volunteers will show adult herons and chicks through litters and talk about heron behavior. Bring binoculars and water; if you don’t have binoculars, you can borrow one from Heron Watch. Visitors will receive a bird checklist and children will receive field logs and heron mobiles.
Volunteer-led nature tours to see herons and other birds around Stow Lake and Strawberry Island are also available for $ 10 for
adults (children are free). Meet at the same viewing site from 10:30 a.m. to noon on the same days as Heron Watch.
Autumn Sartain is an editorial intern at Bay Nature.