Have you ever seen a Great Blue Heron rookery?

The heron rookery in Bella Vista, AR, nature's gem of the Ozarks. Photo by Quin Warsaw

Not four and twenty blackbirds sitting in a tree.

With seven lakes and threaded with streams, springs, and waterfalls, this part of the Ozarks offers a wealth of food for herons, eagles, migrating waterfowl. Photo by Quin Warsaw

Keep in mind that these birds are between 3.5'-4.5' tall with a wingspan of 5.5'-6.5'. Great Blue Herons, the largest of all herons found in the United States, can be seen in Bella Vista year round. Starting very early in the spring, you will see male herons flying in and out of the rookery as they take on the annual task of rebuilding twig nests torn up by the winter weather.

Herons are solitary birds much of the time. They hunt alone but they breed in colonies. There is safety in numbers. There is always a bird around the rookery keeping watch to protect the group. In late winter and early spring they diligently rebuild and expand their breeding and nesting habitat. If you stay a respectful distance away, you won't disturb them and they are fascinating to watch.

For much of the year, the Great Blue Herons are solitary creatures. This is Geoffrey at Tanyard Creek. Such a familiar silhouette in the early morning hour, that photographer Dana Johnson has named him. Photo by Dana Johnson

Photo by Dana Johnson
Photo by Quin Warsaw

The males rebuild nests torn up in winter storms.

Males arrive first and choose a nest with which to woo a mate. Rookery improvements continue year after year-every year, not just those years when wind and rain blow things around. Nest building is part of the mating ritual. The twig nests grow larger and more sound every year growing to 3-4′ in diameter providing these big birds and their brood space and security while they raise their families.

During the mating season, you can observe fragments of the elaborate heron mating ritual, which includes bill snapping, neck stretching, preening, circular flights, twig shaking, and bill duels. Twig shaking? Is this where the “more than you can shake a stick at…” phrase originated. In the spirit of community, herons share twigs between partners and neighboring nest builders.

photo by John Huse

She'll stay if she likes the accommodations.

Heron’s are are not monogamous for life but they do choose only one mate each breeding season. Once a pair has committed to stay together and raise a family, they continue to work on the nest together eventually incubating 3-5 eggs.

By spring, the eggs have hatched and the neighborhood rookery has become the nursery with busy parents keeping their ever more and more active and growing young fed. Even year-round residents of Bella Vista who are accustom to seeing these huge graceful birds swooping over gamboling rapids or standing in shallow water at in any of the area seven lakes are impressed and charmed by the busy rookery springtime activity.

The Bella Vista heron rookery on the edge of Berksdale Golf Course

Berksdale Golf Course has undergone a number of transformations in the past decade. Little Sugar Creek runs through the eastern edge of the course. Little Sugar has received notoriety and name recognition because of the recently opened Little Sugar trail system. The current 40-mile Little Sugar takes trail users under bluffs along Sugar Creek and to a waterfall on Tanyard Creek (see Dana Johnson's photo of Tanyard rapids at top of this story) as it wraps its way around Windsor and Avalon Lakes.

Little Sugar Creek is a tributary of the Elk River, a beautiful creek and a beautiful ride, but "troubled water under the bridge" for the Berksdale Golf Course. After the last storm and the destruction of the bridge offering access to part of the course, it was permanently reduced from an 18 to a 9 hole course. It still is a lovely place to golf, but is also a favorite for walkers, joggers, and nature lovers, which makes sense since Berksdale has achieved a coveted and rare recognition by Audubon for the way the course is managed to support the natural world.

Berksdale Golf Course has achieved designation as a Audubon Certified Cooperative Sanctuary through the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Golf Courses. Wendy Barnes, Assistant Golf Course Superintendent, completed the effort to obtain sanctuary designation on the property. Berksdale Golf Course is one of only 900 courses in the world to hold the title of Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary.

The edge of the rough meets Little Sugar Creek. Photo by Quin Warsaw
Photos on Berksdale Golf Course by Quin Warsaw during Berksdale Bioblitz community event in support of the application to Audubon..

How do I get to the rookery?

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." Albert Einstein

The rookery is west of Little Sugar Creek north of Allen's Food Market at 60 Sugar Creek Shopping Center. If you walk behind Allen's and into the wooded area behind the market you should spot the rookery up ahead.

Please exercise caution (remember they are big birds and defending the homeland, so to speak) and respect by not getting too close. We have to think they are used to photographers, but click from a distance.

And stop at Allen's on your way back to your vacation home and pick up dinner. Photography is hungry business and this view calls for celebration.

Meet some of our local team.

Bella Vista, AR is an exciting and beautiful place to live and to visit. Discover Bella Vista keeps it real by using local talent and knowledge wherever and whenever possible.

We are fortunate to have local photographers, artists, Master Naturalists, mountain bike riders, trail maintenance volunteers, fishing, boating, and golf professionals and amateurs, chefs and restaurant proprietors, and vacation rental hosts who are happy to share this "best secret in the Ozarks" with our readers.

Here are three of our favorite nature photographers. No need for stock photos in our community.

Quin Warsaw

Quin Warsaw is a 17-year-old local photographer with Autism. He is a member of the Bella Vista Birders, Bella Vista Bluebird Society, Bella Vista Photography Club, and is going through training to become an honorary Arkansas Master Naturalist. He enjoys photographing nature, animals, co-shooting, and taking on special documentation projects. Quin has won many awards as a youth photographer. He enjoys contributing his photos for educational purposes and sharing photos with his 500+ followers on his FB group Snappy's View. He also has a bird named Bella, named after beautiful Bella Vista

Dana Johnson

Dana Johnson is a nature and wildlife photographer living and photographing in Bella Vista. Johnson is the son of a wildlife artist and inherited his interest. It wasn’t until he retired that he found the time to dedicate to nurturing his passion.

He is the author of two books, Bella Vista Arkansas and the recently published, Country Roads.

More of Dana’s photography can be seen on his Facebook page Dana Johnson Studio.

John Huse

John Huse is a wildlife and nature photographer living in Bella Vista and photographing across the region, most weekends he is traveling around Bella Vista, Arkansas, Oklahoma or Missouri photographing wildlife or nature. John has been involved in photography since grade school using his father’s cameras, one of which he still uses when he wants to photograph with film. John has been an outdoorsman his entire life and has been working in the outdoor industry for over 25 years. John is a member of the Bella Vista Photography Club and currently is the Competition Chair. John enjoys helping others learn photography through the Photography Club. More of John’s  photography can be seen on his Facebook page.