‘Do it now,’ residents tell Bellingham as they push for reserve for these iconic birds

Residents are pushing the city to protect Bellingham’s only great blue heron nesting site by buying undeveloped land near the birds’ colony and creating a reserve for them.

The colony is at the edge of Fairhaven, in a forested strip owned by the city of Bellingham. It’s between the Post Point Waste Water Treatment Plant and privately owned land that hasn’t been developed in south Bellingham.

Fairhaven resident Jamie Donaldson is leading the effort to permanently protect the colony.

This isn’t the first time she’s tackled the issue, she said, but this one was spurred by a proposal to develop land at 20 Shorewood Drive for housing.

Donaldson and supporters, including birding and environmental groups North Cascades Audubon Society and the Mt. Baker Group of the Sierra Club, have signed petitions, written letters, met with Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and implored the City Council over a number of months to buy the land and create the reserve.

“It’s the last of its kind in our city. They’re iconic,” Donaldson said of the colony and the herons respectively. “We see them all over the city, but they nest and raise their young in one colony only within the city of Bellingham.”

“They’ve been squished out of their other colonies in this area by development. They’re just clinging to this weird-shaped piece of property by the sewage treatment plant,” she said to The Bellingham Herald.

A great blue heron perches on its nest in a tall tree alongside Post Point Lagoon in Bellingham in May. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Heron colony history

Great blue herons are the largest herons in North America, with wingspans of 6 feet.

Adults have slate-gray bodies with touches of chestnut and black, as well as long necks and legs.

They look like they’re sporting black eyebrows on the sides of their heads.

The birds are on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s priority list, meaning they require protective measures for their survival.

The Post Point Heron Colony, as it is called, was first documented in 2000 — a year after a group of herons abandoned their nesting colony along Chuckanut Drive during construction of the Blue Heron Estates, according to a 2018 monitoring report prepared for the city of Bellingham.

The birds return to the Post Point colony to nest high up in trees and raise their young over six to seven months, beginning in February or March — depending on the weather — and continuing to August.

Last year, there were a total of 44 active nests in the colony, and 41 produced young, according to the monitoring report.

That was the highest number of nests recorded so far. But the growth likely occurred because of the presence of herons from a Samish Island colony, which the birds abandoned in 2017.

When they’re there, visitors can see the birds, their nests and their young high up in a fenced-off stand of trees while on a graveled trail across from the treatment plant.

The herons forage for food in nearby Post Point Lagoon and along the shoreline of Marine Park.

The city has a management plan for the colony that includes a 197-foot buffer around the nests, as recommended by Fish and Wildlife.

An update of that 2003 plan is expected by the end of this year, and will likely include the monitoring biologist’s opinion on the appropriate surrounding buffers and developments, according to Rick Sepler, Planning and Community Development director for Bellingham.

Human disturbance is a concern.

In the lead-up to this year’s Ski to Sea race, for example, Bellingham officials asked people who were thinking about flying drones near the finish line at Marine Park to not fly them in the buffer, or in the birds’ foraging area in the lagoon and near the park’s shoreline.

They were concerned that buzzing drones could stress the birds because most of the herons’ predators, including eagles, come from the sky.

Heron Buffer.jpeg
A map shows the great blue heron colony adjacent to the Post Point Lagoon and the city’s wastewater treatment plant in Bellingham. The yellow line represents a 197-foot buffer around the colony that is recommended by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The purple line is a 100-foot non-disturbance buffer, while the red line circles the colony’s core. The solid red dots are trees where there were active nests in 2018, and the solid green dots are previous nest trees. The flowery green/yellow dots are trees where herons roost. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

‘Do it now’

This push to protect the Post Point colony began after Herb Ershig, owner of 20 Shorewood Drive, applied to have the property divided into two single-family lots and an open tract of land for a development called Heronwood Cluster.

Located in the Edgemoor neighborhood, homes on Shorewood Drive are valued at up to $1 million and more.

Heronwood Cluster lots were proposed to be 10,682 square feet and 19,195 square feet, with the tract at 34,364 square feet.

While considering that request, the city approved a critical areas permit for the project.

Critical areas are rules meant to prevent development from encroaching on wildlife habitat and other critical features, such as steep slopes and flood zones, by using the best available science.

Donaldson, an Audubon member who raised money through GoFundMe to pay for an attorney, appealed the city’s decision to the Bellingham Hearing Examiner.

The appeal stated a number of concerns, including that the city didn’t use the best science, that the project would harm their habitat and could cause the herons to abandon their nests.

the appeal read, in part, “... the proposed residential development will degrade the buffer around the Heron Colony, reduce its size, and disturb the Rookery with ongoing human intrusion.” It noted particular concern about the proposal to build the two new homes at eye level with nesting herons.

Before the matter could be heard, Ershig withdrew his request.

Ershig told The Bellingham Herald that the person who wanted to develop the property had the option to buy it from him, pending the city’s approval of the request to divide the property.

“The applicant for the short plat, with the approval of city planners, used a method of dealing with the 197-foot rookery setback that allowed a third small lot that encroached slightly on the rookery area,” Ershig said. “In hindsight, this was a bad idea, and we elected to withdraw the application before going to the hearing examiner.”

He didn’t believe the development endangered the rookery.

“As a 25-year resident of Shorewood next to lot 20, I am interested in protecting the rookery as well as protecting my rights as a landowner,” he said to The Bellingham Herald.

Others felt differently and implored Mayor Linville and the City Council on Monday, Sept. 23, to buy the land to create the reserve.

“Do it now,” said Brooks Anderson, president of Fairhaven Neighbors, a neighborhood group.

Linville defended the city’s efforts.

“”The city of Bellingham has always believed that we are protecting the herons,” she said.

That has included trying to buy the property.

She said the city made a “fair-market value offer to purchase a property adjacent to the heron rookery at Post Point, but unfortunately, the offer was rejected.”

“While the city was unable to purchase the property, there are no active proposals to develop it at this time,” Linville said.

Ershig said he’s willing to sell the property, at a fair price.

“I’m not sure where that leaves us at the moment,” a disappointed Donaldson said.

But, she said, supporters will continue the push to permanently protect the heron colony.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.