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Minneapolis Heron Rookery Destroyed By Tornado

This was so not how I planned to spend my Monday.  Warning, not a pleasant post ahead.

I returned from Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds yesterday and on my way home, Non Birding Bill called to warn me of a possible tornado in north Minneapolis–an area I would drive through on my way to our apartment, but far from our our building.  I mostly avoided the storm and drove through the tail end of it.  We checked Facebook and called friends to make sure people were accounted for and were relieved to find them alive.  This morning, I started my day off finishing errands and planning bird festival blog entries, some bike riding and our next podcast.  Then the emails started to come in asking what I new about the North Mississippi Regional Park Heron Rookery.

A quick check of the Minneapolis Police traffic plan confirmed my fear.  The tornado’s path hit the park.  I called my boss from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and said, “I know it’s my day off, but do you mind if I put on my uniform and go check out the situation?”  If areas were blocked off, I knew I’d have a better chance of getting in and not be perceived as a looter if I had my official badge and uniform on.  He said to go for it.

Reports from friends in the area said that herons were circling non stop around the park.  As I was driving to the exit for North Mississippi Regional Park, I saw herons circling outside of the park fence (this photo was not taken as I was driving, it was taken at the park).  I also noticed trees down around the fence and tornado debris around the highway.  My stomach sank.  I made my way around the blocked exit, entered the visitor center for the park and the employees faces confirmed my fears.  They said the rookery was gone and they were devastated.

I’ve blogged about this rookery a lot.  I even took someone from MPR out to it.  We use it regularly for programs for my park and people who use the trails love to check it out in the summer.  It’s a testament to birds adapting to an urban area.

This is what it looked like this morning.  There are no words.  Every single nest was gone, it looked like the tornado went right through the island.  Even the few trees that managed to stay up in the face of the tornado had lost nests.  Herons were circling the island, some looking for purchase, others flew in with sticks in a half-hearted attempt to rebuild.  Everything was gone.

Most of the walking trails around the park were downed.  There was some access on the biking trail but I had to do some climbing to get around.

There was at least one dead heron on the trail at North Miss, but how many more were under the trees?

When I arrived at a point on the bank of the Mississippi River where I could view the island that once hosted the rookery, I found an injured heron.  I was unprepared.  I’ve handled all sorts of birds with bird banding and with picking up injured raptors for The Raptor Center.  Herons are difficult and dangerous.  They don’t know that you are trying to help them, all they know is that they try to eat the weak and injured when they find it.  They will fight with that spear like beak and that long neck gives them an advantage.  I know of one rehabber who lost an eye grabbing a heron and others who have been stabbed in various appendages.  I had no protective goggles or anything to put the heron in.  It was also close to the river.  I stayed and waited a moment assessing the situation:

The heron flew to a log on the river and compound fracture on its leg was evident.  Sigh.  I was really surprised at how few injured herons I could see.  These are long, lanky, slow moving birds.  The ones that were flying had a few feathers missing but otherwise appeared okay.  How did they survive the tornado?

Some herons perched in the remaining branches and they appeared to be okay. It’s almost as if what happened hasn’t clearly processed in their brains.  They know the nests should be there, they should either be brooding eggs and chicks or bringing in food, but the nests are gone and so they perched in the trees and waited.

A few more were down among the vegetation on the island.  As I was there taking photos, park visitors came by wanting to help and grieving over the lost rookery.  I advised all of them to wait for park personnel to get to the herons and warned them how dangerous they can be.  I sympathized with the park and staff.  However, while there some guys in a boat came by taking photos of the island and of us.

Then these guys in hipster hats got on the island and started heading towards the herons, no gloves, no protective eye wear, nothing.  I yelled to them to stay away and they seemed surprised someone could see them and backed off.  I appreciate that people want to help, but injured herons are incredibly dangerous.  My park is working on a solution to reach them right now.  The river is still high and again these are dangerous birds, we need planning and skills.

The big question people want to know is what will the herons do now?  Will they renest?  I don’t think that they will, they have a brief time for nesting in Minnesota. Nest building can take about 3 days if they really work, but can take a week or more.  Incubation is about 27 days and the young fledge (fly and leave the nest) at about 54 – 57 days.  It takes a few weeks for young herons to become independent from the adults.  So, we’re looking at about a three month process meaning the chicks would fledge in late August–that’s a little late, especially since the rookery is gone.

I think these guys will get the summer off to feed themselves.  There may be a few young herons who might attempt a renesting at Coon Rapids Dam a few miles north on the river, but I think the season is scrapped for most of them.  On the upside, herons build flimsy nests and this is something they have evolved to handle natural disasters.  The heron population in the Twin Cities is very stable, they will handle this and restart next year.  At the same time, it’s hard to see the devastation and it’s incredibly hard to watch the injured.

I couldn’t help but notice all the birds on the ground.  This American redstart practically walked through my legs.  Warbling vireos, orioles and other warblers were down low, feeding off of the insects tucked around the branches of the downed trees.  I couldn’t help but wonder how something that weighs about as much as a dust bunny could survive a tornado?  Did they just roll under some shrubbery when the wind blew?

As I was about to leave, a park patron walked up carrying a bawling fawn.  He said it was found in the open on the trail alone and crying out (it kind of sounded like a goat).  I was working my way towards getting him to put the fawn back where he found it (fawns normally hide while the does are out feeding and it’s not unusual to find one unattended) but he said that he found a dead doe near the fawn which didn’t sound optimistic for the young deer.  I ended up taking it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

So, all in all this was a crap Monday.  I apologize that the podcast didn’t happen today and it won’t happen tomorrow.  I spent the day trying to coordinate an effort to get to the heron rookery island with people experienced with herons and to see if we can get the injured adults. Plus, I’m in a morose mood, I can’t imagine the podcast being fun to listen to.

One final sad note about the Minneapolis tornado. There’s a report that Rob MacIntyre of the Raptor Resource Project (the folks who bring us the Decorah Eagle Cam) died while helping his neighbors clear debris.

This tornado was sad on many levels.

29 comments to Minneapolis Heron Rookery Destroyed By Tornado

  • My condolences on the devastating loss of Rob MacIntyre, doing a good thing, helping neighbors. I am so sorry for all the losses you faced today. I can imagine it was an overwhelming, draining day, emotionally and physically. But thank you for taking the time to give us a picture of the environmental impact of the tornado as well as doing ALL the many things you did today to assess and assist the situation. Way above and beyond the call of duty but truly appreciated. I hope you’re able to rest tonight, body and mind. You did an amazing, good thing today.

  • What an awful day. Words fail.

    Thanks for posting, Sharon. Quite understandable about no podcast–I wouldn’t be in the mood either.

  • Jennifer

    An awful day. I’m so sorry for all the loss. I’m glad you were able to help people from getting injured.

  • Sharon, I’m so sorry. So many sad situations from this tragic event. And little moments of grace and beauty. Thank you for this post.

  • JGo

    Sharon, I really appreciate the time and effort that it took for you to post this. Thank you for the information and the sad and incredible pictures. Words fail in light of so much suffering of so many beings, human and non-human. Thanks for the work you do, too. It’s always hard to accept this kind of destruction is a part of the natural world that I love so much. I hope things look more hopeful tomorrow. Take care.

  • Incredibly sad day; incredible loss. My heart goes out to you, and to the birds, and to everyone that suffered so much loss. My heart hurts for all of you.

  • sharon collins

    Sharon, I visited the remains of the rookery around 6pm today and was devastated. We saw the same dead heron, the downed trees,the flying herons — the devastation. I so appreciate you sharing all this sad information – you answered our questions. I am sending this onto my fammily that live within blocks of river and walk here daily to observe the herons. She will appreciate having your blog and meeting you thru the internet, as am I.
    Thanks again.

  • ed

    The losses are more than anyone can bear – but your stewardship of the rookery during such disaster – is a beacon.

  • Dragonsally

    I’m so sorry to read and see all this Sharon, its heart rending.

    I didn’t know herons could do so much damage.

  • Thank you, everyone, for your kind words. I’m about to meet with some member of my park (MNRRA) and the MN DNR to go out to the island at dawn to see what we can find. Our first priority is human safety on the island and high water. We’ll see if we can round up any herons to take to wildlife rehab or at least, prevent them from a slow death.

  • So sad. Good luck today- I hope you guys can help.

  • this just breaks my heart. I loved living next to the rookery in Michigan–I can’t even imagine what this is like.

    I went through a similar issue of “helpful” members of the public after the oil spill. They don’t get that an injured big bird or other animal can be dangerous.

    I hope you’ll let us know what, if anything, we public-y types can do to help. And that you and your co-workers are safe.

  • This whole thing is heartbreaking, but i’m uplifted by your urge to help (knowingly, not blindingly (bad pun) trying to help). While i always want to help injured and hurt animals, after having to help my house rabbits when they are stressed, i know better and just try to contact those with training or ask my vet (Cedar Pet Clinic, shameless plug) the best way to proceed.

    Glad you are keeping us informed, i can’t even imagine what it must be like to for the animals to not really know what happened or why.

  • You should be applauded for having the courage to step up as well as the discretion and maturity to know when to step back and call in extra help.
    Hang in there and keep doing what you’ve been doing

  • Sad and tragic on so many levels. God bless MN and MO!

  • Eileen

    I just found out about the rookery this year and loved going there. I am devastated also. Thank you for your information and please let us know if we can do anything to help. It is all so very sad.

  • Tisha

    Good luck today. This is so sad. One bright spot though, is that hopefully that little fawn will survive. Poor little guy.

  • Oh – grim. Good luck with the recovery work. Keep us posted on the plight of the living herons – this will be a good piece of information to have – what does a large colony do to rebuild? Do they disperse? Do they rebuild elsewhere en-mass?

    We have one of the largest West Coast Heron rooks here in Anacortes and if it were destroyed, the entire community would be devastated – the birds are everywhere and such a part of our place.

  • What an awful disaster, so much death and destruction. Congrats to you for helping and the work that you do there.

  • Ubermoogle

    Oh wow… I cannot imagine how devastating this must be for you and everyone who has worked within proximity to this rookery. I am glad cooler heads have prevailed though, and that you’re taking the time you need to go about the relief effort as safely as possible for all involved.

  • Calvin Arnason

    There is no theology that can handle this with any satisfaction.

    Thank you Sharon for your help and service.

  • Lynn Burkard

    How brave you are to share this with us. Such heartbreak and saddness. Thank you

  • Lou Ann Arenz

    I was looking forward to bringing my grand children to see the rookery for their first time, I seen it for my first time last year when I took a Master Naturalist class. It’s hard to believe it’s gone. This is such devastating news. Thank you for your commitment and dedication and for the information you have provided.

  • I’m so sorry to hear about this and the loss of Rob M. A tornado missed me by just 500 feet about 10 days ago, and I’m still driving by all the forest devastation it caused, though fortunately there was no loss of life. It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. I truly expected the cabin to be crushed by falling oaks (with me in it) but I guess it was just far enough away that me and mine were spared.

  • There’s still a rookery at Coon Rapids Dam just a few miles up river from this park. And you know, looking at the downed trees, maybe this will be a spot for an osprey to nest?

  • nita marie

    i am a wild-bird rehabber…………and have worked with Herons…i am writing this in a Tornado shelter…. the wind is wicked now…..here in Western Tn. ……….so much wildlife has been wiped out from these huge monster Tornadoes…. and then the flooding of the Mississippi and the opening of the Morgana spillway drowning wildlife… deer stuck on roof tops of flooded homes, tree nesting birds wiped out, rookeries blown away, human loss of life, people cut in two, domestic pets lost from owners, entire towns wiped clean…. grain fields that have been growing, now just exposed dirt bowls, trees standing ,but missing all bark…. these Tornadoes suck up everything in its path…..cattle picked up and dropped miles away, of course dead……………… two months of pure hell and it’s just warming up….. blessings to all affected by these killer storms…be safe be well………….. and lend a hand if you can…………..

  • Wish I could give you a hug, BC. This is heartbreaking and illuminating, too. Who thinks about birds in a tornado? I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a bird in a tornado. The herons circling over their devastated rookery…you clambering over debris trying to help. When you care so much about wild things, your plans can turn on a dime. Sending you love and strength for what lies ahead. And thank you for this moving post.