It’s nesting season for the great blue herons at the locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, a ritual that is carrying on uninterrupted during the Covid-19 pandemic. March is a good time to see the gangly birds prepping for the arrival of their spring hatchlings. The tall trees have yet to leaf out, and visitors who crane their necks are rewarded with a non-camouflaged view of nests resting on the branches like avian apartments in the sky.
The pathway across the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks is closed during the pandemic, so the best way to see the nesting colony is to take a walk in Commodore Park, where long, grassy steps spill down to the south bank of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. I entered the park recently, camera in hand and face covered with a mask, and I was relieved to discover that the park was nearly empty of people. I scanned the treetops. More than 40 pairs of herons typically nest here, and I was happy to discover this spring’s early count seems to be nearly as robust.
The people of ancient France painted horses and stags on cave walls, and the coastal people of the Salish Sea carved images of orca whales in rocks by the shore. I pull out my iPhones to claim a piece of the natural world. This human need seems even more essential now — a reprieve from quarantines, social distancing and face masks.
Over the past year, I’ve watched as my friends have populated the internet with shots of wildlife. A red fox scrounging in broad daylight for food in the snow. A pink-nosed opossum rustling through backyard leaves. A red-winged blackbird blowing a smoke ring on a cold late-winter morning. We may be confined to our quarantined cages, but critters are thriving in urban parks and suburban woods. Scientists are studying this “anthropause” and taking note of nature’s ability to reclaim space during this pandemic-related slowdown in human activity. Like many others enduring this fifth season of loss and isolation, I am filled with awe and envy when I see a cormorant, or an eagle or a great blue heron unburdened by the worries of a global plague.
I was filled with these emotions when I spied a giant wingspan and watched a heron float high above the nesting trees at the locks. I eagerly pointed my phone camera lens to the sky. I was a click away from sharing my captured image on Instagram when I saw someone with a giant camera lens slung over his shoulder. I adjusted my face mask and briskly walked in the opposite direction.