Heron Island on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is no longer home to its namesake bird since last year's tornado knocked down dozens of nesting trees.

But the resilient bird soon found a new rookery about 4 miles downriver on another island, and now it's populated with 40 new nests.

The great blue herons joined sandpipers and peregrine falcons on the island, which is adjacent to Xcel Energy's Riverside plant. Sharon Stiteler, a St. Paul-based park ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, calls it a birdwatcher's dream.

"It's a neat birding ecosystem," she said. "The young birds are getting big enough that you can hear them begging for food."

Nobody knew what would become of the several hundred great herons that lived on the small Heron Island, near North Mississippi Regional Park, after the May 2011 tornado. Stiteler estimated that more than 180 nests, each holding two or three hatchlings, were blown from the tops of trees that were toppled or uprooted.

Several adult herons and more than 60 chicks were found dead on the island. At the time, Stiteler speculated the herons might join existing rookeries at the Coon Rapids Dam or Pig's Eye Lake, or nest on another island in the river.

She was surprised to see the birds build a new colony because they usually nest in a more singular fashion. What really excited her was that some herons rebuilt on the new island shortly after the tornado. It takes about 60 days from when an egg is laid for the chick to hatch, she said. There were several new arrivals before last summer ended, she said.

The new island doesn't have a name, and it's unclear who owns it. It is similar to Heron Island, but not as dense.

The herons weren't going to rebuild on Heron Island because nearly all the tree were gone, and the birds like to nest high in trees to protect themselves from raccoons and coyotes, Stiteler said. She expects the number of nests on the new island will double over the next few years.

She said many bird lovers reached out to various groups and organizations to help the herons after the tornado.

"Great blue herons can seem like common scenery around Minnesota," she said. "Many people cared about the rookery."

The heron's revival on a new island is a testament to water quality in the Twin Cities, Stiteler said. There is also an abundance of food and safe places to live or the herons wouldn't have bothered to nest again so quickly, she said.

"It's just awesome," she said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465