Little Bit of Blue

It is good to find one’s place. In New York City, for this bird, it was hard to find. Sometimes I found it while walking around the Central Park Reservoir in February, glasses fogged and fingers numb, scanning the water for anything out of the ordinary. Sometimes I found it in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, under Diana’s watchful gaze. Sometimes at Jamaica Bay, where glossy ibis mingled with jet liners in the air. But I usually had to leave the city to find it.

Last week, I found that all I need to do now is drive 9 minutes—to this.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
Fitzgerald Lake

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area is a 560-acre swath of wooded wetlands, lake, meadows, and forested uplands in Northampton. The conservation area is managed by the Broad Brook Coalition, a local organization dedicated to the preservation of open space and the promotion of affordable housing in the city—two goals that are often thought to be at odds with one another. I’m glad to see that is not the case here.

The lake itself is manmade, created when Broad Brook was dammed in anticipation of a housing development in 1965. Conservation restrictions eventually led this project to be abandoned, and the landowner, Harold Fitzgerald, sold the lake and surrounding land to the city 12 years later.

There are a couple of entrances, the closest being just beyond a shopping center that we frequent for pet supplies, but I decided to explore that route another day. Instead, I took the entrance on North Farms Road, which featured an accessible paved trail winding through the woodlands and—most appealing to me—close proximity to a boardwalk. As I made my way through the woods, American goldfinch (probably fledglings begging to be fed, judging by the cacophony), eastern wood-pewee, and a couple of rather insistent mosquitoes provided a fitting late-summer soundtrack.

Elizabeth makes fun of me all the time for my love of boardwalks (bonus points if they go through wetlands), but there is just something about hearing my hollow footsteps over the water that puts my mind at ease. And, what’s more, they provide excellent vantage points for birding, which leads me the reason for my visit: a little blue heron.

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea)

These small waders are not uncommon in my hometown on Long Island during the summer months, but I had not seen one yet this year due to our move. I was actually surprised to learn how rare they are in Western Massachusetts; according to eBird, this is the first one sighted west of Boston all year. Adult little blue herons are quite striking creatures, with light blue beaks, purple or even maroon heads, and deep slate-blue bodies. The Fitzgerald Lake bird, however, is a juvenile and blue in name only.

Little Blue Heron and Mallard
Size comparison with a mallard

Although they have similar plumage, juvenile little blue herons can be distinguished from snowy egrets by their greenish-yellow legs (versus the snowy’s black-with-yellow-socks), pale beaks tipped with black, and their more sedentary style of fishing. Compared to snowy egrets, whom you might see dashing about in the shallow water as they chase fish, little blue herons take a watch-and-wait approach and only strike when necessary. As a similarly methodical creature, I admire and appreciate their patience.

Little Blue Heron
Seeing double

After getting my fill, I continued my walk along the shoreline, following the white- and blue-blazed trails until I reached a point marked “The Narrows” on my map. The lake was perfectly still, save for some wood ducks paddling on the opposite shore and a stray swallow swooping after insects. And even though I could still hear the fairgrounds in the distance, when I looked across the lake it felt like I was the only human around for miles. Yes, I think this is the place.

Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area
The Narrows
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