Great Blue Heron Letterbox
Time: 20-30 minutes
Precautions: Parts of the trail could be muddy. Watch for thorns on bushes.
Several times when I have visited Mt. Gilead State Park at dusk, I have attempted to photograph a magnificent Great Blue Heron standing near the edge of the lower dam. This large, wading bird belongs to the most common heron species found in North America. He is easy to spot with his long, gray reddish neck, his bluish-gray back wings and belly, and his long, yellowish legs. His height of nearly 60 inches and his identifying black cap with plume leave little doubt in my mind that this bird is indeed a Great Blue.
Perhaps he is searching for a succulent meal near the surface of the water─ a sick fish, a small turtle, an amphibian? Or perhaps he is waiting to catch the perfect grasshopper, dragonfly, or butterfly while still in flight? Or could he be searching for a tiny mouse to spear with his long, thick yellow bill? Whatever his choice, this solitary diner must be careful not to choke on his prey as he swallows his victim whole.
Could it be that a nest is nearby? Perhaps in March or April, this male and another female began building a nest for their future young. The surrounding lake makes this area an ideal location for a heron’s nest. Yet, I have never spotted a nest among the trees or bushes near the water’s edge. Maybe I should inspect the 20 to 60-foot branches of the pine, beech, oak, and sycamore trees for a possible heron’s nest. Here, their eggs and future young will be safe from unwanted predators for the next three months until the chicks are ready to leave the nest. I will look for a rickety nest, up to 40 inches in diameter, which is made of sticks and lined with twigs, grass, reeds, leaves, and moss.
But shhhh! I must be quiet while passing near a heron’s nest. I must remember that at least one of the parents is present during the first several weeks of the nesting period. If this nest is continually disturbed by humans, the parents will abandon the young chicks or eggs. Or if I am standing underneath the nest, and the young herons suspect that I am an unwanted predator, they will regurgitate their food and drop it on my head from above.
If I listen closely, I may hear the sound of what may first appear to be barking puppies; instead, it is the young, hungry herons waiting impatiently for their parents to return with food. Oddly enough, out of the six to seven pale blue eggs laid, only two of the young will survive. The rest will die of starvation shortly after hatching. Of the chicks that remain, the first one to hatch is apt to be more aggressive, better at handling food, and larger in size.
If I find one nest, I will probably find another. Although Great Blues occasionally nest singly, most will nest in colonies, along with other heron species, of five to five hundred nests. A colony, also called a “heronry” or “rookery,” contains an average of 160 nests.
In case I do not spot a nest, I can still watch the heron from afar. I can hear his deep, hoarse croak above the sound of the rushing water near the dam. As he finally flies away, I notice his folded neck positioned closely to the rest of his body with his legs trailing from behind. I watch the slow, deliberate beating of his wings as he disappears from view across the lake. Perhaps the next time I am here, I will spot this magnificent creature once again.
To find this letterbox, begin by enjoying the beautiful rolling hills along State Route 95 near Mt. Gilead. If traveling north towards the town of Mt. Gilead, take the second entrance to the state park; if traveling south, take the first entrance. Find a place to park in the parking lot located on a steep hill. Proceed down the grassy hillside, past the canoes and dock, towards the wooden bridge located near the lower dam. Pause for a moment along the dam and bridge to enjoy the view and sound of rushing water as it flows past. It is here that you may spot a great blue heron (the actual bird─ not the letterbox.)
After crossing the wooden bridge, bear to your right and follow the Lakeside Trail. Remain on this trail until you come to a fork: the Lakeside Trail continues on to the right along the lake and the Piney Woods Trail leads to the left up the hill and into the woods. Walk to the Piney Woods Trail sign and turn 250 degrees. You will notice a very large tree beside the lake. Walk 14 steps, or 7 paces, to the tree. Once again, take time to enjoy the beauty of this small overlook. You may see the canoes and boats in the distance, fisherman fishing along the lake, and a few bobbers hanging from the tree!
From the base of this large tree, turn 15 degrees. Look closely, and you’ll see a fallen tree, with many short branches, lying horizontally on the ground. It looks like two trees, but there is only one. Walk about thirty steps or fifteen paces to the fallen tree. You may have to bear to your right a bit and then back to your left to maintain a direction of 15 degrees. Look behind both pieces of the fallen tree. Here, you will find the “Great Blue Heron” letterbox hidden carefully underneath some old bark and several small branches.
Once “Great Blue” has been replaced and hidden carefully from view, you may want to follow Lakeside Trail 1.7 miles to the edge campground. Or, you may prefer hiking on one of the other short hiking trails located within the park. Perhaps you would like to search for some of the other letterboxes recently hidden within the state park’s boundaries? Whatever you decide, enjoy the scenery!