Golden Gate Park

‘Heron Lady’ at GG Park’s Stow Lake Relishes Her Role as Nature Educator

By Judy Goddess

“Is this a goose egg?” a young girl asked, carefully cradling a small white egg. “I found it right there.” She pointed to a spot not 10 feet away from where Nancy DeStefanis was camped on her bench along the north side of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. 

DeStefanis, who is known locally as the Heron Lady, considered the egg and the girl. “No. It’s too small to be a goose egg. It’s a duck egg,” she said. Then the girl said: “Will it hatch?” 

Nancy DeStefanis-lighter

Nancy DeStefanis, the “Heron Lady,” is easy to spot with a blue heron atop her red car. She can often be found on the north side of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, ready to share her ornithological knowledge. Courtesy photo by SFNE.

After some discussion about eggs needing steady warmth to hatch and the unlikelihood of fooling another duck to sit on the abandoned egg, DeStefanis offered: “Come back on Monday and I’ll bring some nests and eggs and wings for you to look at. And be sure to bring your mother, too.”

Spring is prime time for heron viewing. Almost any spring afternoon, the Heron Lady can be found sitting on her bench by Stow Lake. It offers a perfect view of the large branching tree that is home to six heron nests and 16 chicks. 

2babychicksoldenoughtofly HeleneSobol.jpg

Photo by Helene Sobol. 

“This has been a good year for the herons. Not as good as last year, but still a good year. If all 16 chicks survive, that will be 242 chicks who learned to fly in Golden Gate Park.” 

That is, who learned to fly since 1993, when DeStefanis, rounding the path to the boat house, saw “this large bird with a huge wingspan.” She was lucky, the SF Bay Bird Observatory later told her. She had seen the first Great Blue Heron in Golden Gate Park.  

DeStefanis was hooked. She closed her legal practice, took birding classes at the Audubon Canyon Ranch, and seven years later founded San Francisco Nature Education. 

“I’m a lot happier than I was in the law,” she said.

SF Nature Education conducts school programs for underserved youth, field trips to parks to observe local and migratory birds, Saturday heron watches for adults, and an internship program that has trained more than 250 middle- and high-school students to assist DeStefanis and adult volunteers with the program. 

adult GBHwchickHelene Sobol

Photo by Helene Sobol.

“Some of our interns have gone on to study ornithology or a related field,” DeStefanis said. “The important thing is they learn to observe, protect and love nature.” 

“We hold a bird call competition (each spring). The members of the best team – they work in groups of four – receive binoculars. I’m pretty good at getting things donated,” she said.  

Herons arrive at Stow Lake as early as November. After building their nests – or, more often, adding twigs to a well-constructed older nest – the females lay three to five eggs each which both parents protect and incubate. By late April, the chicks have hatched, and the challenge of keeping them fed begins. By mid-June, the chicks have reached full size and are ready to learn to fly. After a period of vigorous wing flapping and “branch hopping,” they are ready to try a short flight. Late June through July is a busy time, with the chicks taking longer flights and beginning to find their own food. 

Though the pandemic did not affect the herons, it forced DeStefanis to cancel the school programs, Heron Watches and the internship program. She hopes to start them up again this fall, but meanwhile she keeps busy surveying the herons and answering questions from eager visitors. 

But even without organized activities, the Heron Lady is always ready to engage children and adults in learning about the herons and other birds who make their homes in Golden Gate Park. She is easy to spot. Just look for a bright red car with a tall blue heron decoy peeking through the sunroof. She will be sitting on the nearby bench answering questions and greeting friends, old and young, and wearing a mask.

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