Yellow-crowned night herons of the Jones Falls

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Birdwatcher George Washington Williams has been photographing yellow-crowned night herons in Baltimore for six years.

The Jones Falls Trail might not be the most scenic spot to have children. Trains chug by all day long, there’s trash pretty much everywhere. In the afternoon, the smell of raw sewage rises from the water. But none of this seems to matter to the Yellow-crowned night heron. The birds fly to Baltimore each spring – perhaps from as far as Central America – to raise their families.

“I can’t believe that they would nest here with all this deafening noise,” said birdwatcher George Washington Williams, as a train clanged overhead. “I couldn’t have my family here.”

And yet — here they are, high within the sycamore trees, in nests of twigs, laying turquoise blue eggs, hatching, stretching limbs, and learning to fly. “The hardest thing for these guys is landing,” Williams said. “I’ve seen them when they land sideways.”

A retired engineer, he comes every day, usually twice a day, from the time they arrive in mid March, until they return south. “I usually stay as long as it takes for these guys to leave,” he said. (He usually refers to the birds as ‘these guys.’) This is his sixth year coming.

In a spreadsheet, he tracks the birds as they nest, mate, lay eggs, hatch, and eventually start to fly. He also uploads his photos to Flickr, along with his notes. “Amazing to see so many chicks hatch in one day,” he wrote on May 12, 2017. “This is year 6 for me and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

As Williams, 67, is watching the birds, he said, the birds are watching him. He tells a story about a time he saw a hawk near one of the nests. Without even thinking, he yelled and clapped to scare it off. The parents knew then that they could trust him. They’d even leave the nest – with Williams standing there, telephoto lens in hand, a kind of de facto babysitter.