Coalition saves Olympia’s only great blue heron colony

A great blue heron soars overhead, holding a leafy branch in his long beak as rays of morning sunlight streak through a wooded canopy in west Olympia.

It’s breeding season for the birds, and after 40-plus years, their home is safe again. They live in the city’s lone great blue heron colony — known as a rookery or heronry — off Rogers Street near the Olympia Food Co-op.

“These have been our herons for decades,” said resident Dan Einstein as a handful of herons squawked in the treetops where they nest. “Who knows why they picked our neighborhood, but they did.”

Last summer, Einstein helped launch the nonprofit Olympia Coalition for Ecosystems Preservation in response to a proposed townhome development in the woods at the end of Dickinson Avenue. An access road was slated to pass through the heronry. Some people were concerned that the extra human disturbances would cause the birds to leave.

The coalition has since led a successful effort to protect the heronry and the land surrounding it. Volunteers have spent countless hours pulling ivy and planting trees. The coalition has installed signs and enclosed the site’s entrance on Dickinson Avenue with split-rail fencing.

Einstein estimates that about 30 herons have returned for this year’s breeding season, which runs mid-February through August.

“You don’t preserve animals,” Einstein said. “You preserve habitat.”

One key factor in this preservation was the purchase of nearly 4.5 acres by Olympia resident Alicia Elliott in late 2014. The acreage includes the heronry and part of the West Bay woods.

“I have faith that we’ve protected them effectively,” Elliott said of the herons.

As for the townhomes, developer Glenn Wells has gone back to the drawing board. In February, he submitted new plans to the city that call for moving the townhomes farther east to increase the buffer between the development and the heronry. Another change includes a different access road that would come uphill from West Bay Drive and reduce the impact on the heronry.

Wells told The Olympian he is still exploring options for the site, but said further work on the project is “probably not going to happen this year.”

Elliott said an idea has been floated, but not formally proposed to the city, for a land swap involving an undeveloped piece of West Bay Park that could be used to access the townhome property. She called it a “win-win situation” that would allow Wells to continue with the development.

Elliott and the coalition are unable to raise enough money to buy the Wells parcel at the current asking price, which is more than $200,000, she said.

“Glenn has been sympathetic to our needs to protect the birds,” she said. “Would another buyer be as sympathetic?”

In the meantime, Einstein is thrilled at the coalition’s progress, calling it a major win for conservation in Thurston County.

The coalition’s next step is to raise more money through grants and private donations. Restoration will resume in August when the breeding season ends, Einstein said, with a goal of extending the buffer between herons and humans. Einstein stresses that the heronry is not intended to be a tourist attraction, but understands the public may have a legitimate curiosity about the birds. With that in mind, the coalition is looking into ideas such as setting up webcams in the trees.

As its name suggests, the coalition is concerned with the overall ecosystem. The woods represent one piece of a larger interconnected puzzle that includes a contaminated West Bay shoreline located within the 4-mile radius where the herons forage for fish and food.

Schneider Creek and the rest of the West Bay woods are part of the corridor the coalition hopes to conserve.

Einstein also noted the economic potential in habitat restoration where people and wildlife benefit.

“We’ve matured from being a group that opposed something to trying to achieve a vision,” Einstein said. “What we’ve set out to do, we’ve done.”

West Olympia resident Joe Chiveney said the coalition has played a crucial role in raising community awareness about the beloved herons. He initially thought the effort would be a lost battle.

“It’s amazing how it worked out,” said Chiveney, who lives less than a mile away from the site. “All of those nests could have been completely wiped out.”

Another key issue on the coalition’s radar is Olympia’s Critical Areas Ordinance, which focuses on protecting wildlife habitats and sensitive environments. The city will review the ordinance for possible updates this year. One point of contention is that great blue herons are classified as a priority species, rather than endangered or threatened species, and are therefore not protected under the current ordinance.