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Planting a future for Vernon's herons

Aaron Deans, Allan Brooks executive director, makes deer proof cages for trees to make a new heron grove in the Swan Lake Nature Reserve.   - Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star
Aaron Deans, Allan Brooks executive director, makes deer proof cages for trees to make a new heron grove in the Swan Lake Nature Reserve.
— image credit: Lisa VanderVelde/Morning Star

Efforts are being made to keep the majestic great blue heron colony’s roots in Vernon.

Nestled between Wal-Mart, residential complexes and industrial businesses, is one of the largest urban heronries in Western Canada.

Three pairs of great blue heron established the breeding colony in 1986 and it has gradually increased over the past 26 years to more than 40 nests.

“Vernon has one of the only truly urban heron colonies in Western Canada,” said Aaron Deans, Allan Brooks Nature Centre (ABNC) executive director.

But the black cottonwoods that these herons call home won’t last forever, and are already beginning to show signs of age.

“The heron rookery near Wal-Mart is starting to fall apart,” said Deans.

While the trees could potentially last for many more years, work has been underway to ensure that the great birds have a place to relocate to.

The Regional District of North Okanagan and City of Vernon have had plans since 2011 to replace the existing heron rookery.

Those plans came to fruition recently, as approximately 285 trees were planted at the Swan Lake Nature Reserve.

“We’re recreating a stand of trees that could potentially be used by the great blue heron,” said Deans of the plantings which consist largely of black cottonwoods, along with other varieties.

Volunteers (Kalamalka Secondary’s Students Without Borders Academy, North Okanagan Naturalists Club, ABNC, among others) pitched in to plant the trees, which were raised by Mike Carlson at the Landing Nursery.

The trees won’t be big enough for the herons to relocate to for about another 20 to 30 years, during which time Deans expects the existing cottonwoods will hold up.

“There is some significant levels of good health left in the ones that are there.”

But once the old growth starts to deteriorate, it is anticipated that the herons will settle into the new stand of trees at Swan Lake, which are less than one kilometre away.

“If you build it, they will come,” said Deans.

Along with building a potential nesting habitat for herons, and other bird and wildlife species, the project will leave a legacy for the community, said Deans. There will also be spin-offs for further environmental education, nature appreciation and promotion of healthy, active, lifestyle opportunities.

And the tradition of these great birds returning to the area each spring, a sight which a number of residents look forward to, will hopefully continue.

The history of the great blue heron in the area is thought to have originated from Otter Lake.

“Historically there was quite a sizable heronry at Otter Lake,” said Deans of the site which is approximately 15 kms northwest of Vernon.

The herons abandoned the colony for unknown reasons during the mid-1980s (Cannings et al.1987), and it was assumed that the birds re-located to the Vernon site.

When the great birds first started nesting in Vernon 26 years ago, the original woodlot of cottonwoods was much larger. But in 1993 the northern half was cleared. The present grove is approximately one city block in size.

There is no longer a risk of the woodlot being harmed, thanks to some neighbouring efforts to preserve the site. The current woodlot is legally protected and cannot be cut down until at least one year after the herons have ceased to breed at the site.

 

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