A handful of great blue herons once again are settling on the most urban stretch of the upper Mississippi.
Less than a month after a tornado destroyed the Heron Island rookery in north Minneapolis, at least two dozen of (presumably) the same birds have built nests on a pair of islands a little ways downstream. The storm that blew more than 180 nests out of the treetops is believed to have killed hundreds of chicks. But their parents already are tending new batches of eggs.
On a recent morning, a flotilla of six 24-foot voyageur canoes wended by the two narrow islands near the Xcel Energy Riverside Plant in northeast Minneapolis. The canoeists, on a Wilderness Inquiry day trip from North Mississippi Regional Park to the River Flats by the University of Minnesota, held paddles mid-stroke and craned their heads for a better look.
Sharon Stiteler, a St. Paul-based ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, pointed out several stringy nests in the treetops; over the tops of a few, the beaks and beady eyes of brooding parents were visible.
The prospects for the chicks-in-waiting in the nests are unknown. They won't likely hatch for a month, and they need three months to learn to hunt, to prepare for the winter migration. But if we have a mild fall, they might have a chance. Stiteler put their fates into perspective.
"The prospects for any chick is questionable," she said. "When birds have chicks, they play the odds. ... They can't be in any worse position than they are already."
Stiteler, who has a blog called www.birdchick.com, said she was alerted to the birds' return by several boaters who called her office.
Some other displaced birds are believed to have taken up residence at a smaller rookery near the Coon Rapids Dam.
She said she was surprised to see that some birds had resettled in the same area but that the location makes sense, in part because it's not really any farther from their hunting grounds, the area lakes.
"It's similar to the previous island," she said. "It has a similar habitat, it's the same route to their hunting ground, only about two river miles away."
Several on the outing, designed to get people of all abilities onto the river, asked about the destroyed rookery.
Stiteler reiterated her belief that the adult herons either saw or sensed the tornado coming and flew to safety, abandoning their 3-week-old chicks.
"There was nothing to do to help those chicks," she said, adding that the adult herons wouldn't have been able to pick them up and carry them away if they'd wanted to. Still, given the hands-off parenting habits of great blue herons, it probably didn't occur to them.
"So, kids," she said to the youngest canoeists, "be thankful you have human parents."
All kidding aside, Stiteler said that she's heartened by the herons' return and that our piece of the Mississippi River is an incredible habitat for birds because of an abundance of hunting and islands to make their homes, all of which also make the river "the 35W of migration" for birds.
"It shows we are doing a lot of things right in taking care of water quality in the Twin Cities," she said. "That's not to say we don't still have work to do, but it shows we can manage an urban environment to work well with wildlife."
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409