“Beware the blue cranes,” I shouted to the metallic skinks as I rearranged the log pile into a neater shape, hoping it would be the last time I’d need a fuel supply for my wood heater this year.
A far greater danger presented itself to the skinks than the unlikely event of being crushed between pine and peppermint gum. The same hot spring sunshine which had brought out the skinks to bask on bark had also brought the white-faced herons into the suburbs looking for a quick and easy meal.
The herons, or blue cranes as they are known in Tasmania, were pacing pavement, paving stone and manicured lawn in the neighbourhood. They cut a handsome, elegant sight, strolling daintily on long legs like ultra-thin, tall models on a catwalk.
The herons had arrived from the coast in the same unhurried way, crossing low in the sky in slow, bouncing flight.
The knowledge that the first warmth of spring will bring skink and lizard from winter hiding places must be implanted in heron DNA. Before the arrival of European settlers, the herons would have hunted the dry woodland which was later to become our suburbs. In turn, the skinks in my garden always appear oblivious to the hazard of exposing their sleek glazed and finely mottled skin to the heavens.
Heron eyes are sharp, designed normally for spotting fish under water, and their slow, deliberate movements are built for ambush and surprise.
The method of attack on land – in our gardens, parks and adjoining woodland – is exactly the same as that employed in the more familiar terrain of marsh and riverbank. A slow approach to striking range and then a lightning strike with the whiplash neck and dagger bill.
Although called the blue crane, the heron’s plumage is largely blue-grey, washed with pink on the lower breast. A white mask across the bill and running down the neck gives them their common name. When breeding, the birds have long feathers – nuptial plumes – on the head, neck and back.
The blue crane is a big bird, about 70 centimetres in length.
This year I’ve received more sightings, and inquires, about blue cranes than usual and that is a good sign. As wetlands disappear throughout Australia, drained to become suburb or farmland, birds inhabiting these environments are also in decline. The white-faced heron, though, is extremely adaptable.
Year in, year out, I see herons in my garden and beyond at the start of spring. Sometimes herons have even been known to stand on the hot tin roof of a neighbour’s house, eyeing fresh killing fields after the supply of skinks in my own garden has apparently been exhausted.
I always see skinks about, however, after the herons have returned to wetlands to breed. And I’m happy that the smartest of the skinks have kept themselves concealed during the herons’ visits, and my dormant log pile will prove a secure home for them during the summer.