ROCHESTER, Minn. -- A court-issued restraining order paused development plans for a site of dozens of great blue heron nests on land owned by a member of the county soil and water conservation board. How long plans are paused is now up to dozens of herons nesting on a patch of land west of Rochester.

The Olmsted County Planning Advisory Commission on March 18 unanimously approved a request to designate 30 acres of land owned by Steve Connelly in Rochester Township as suburban development.

The next day, property owners of adjoining land noticed stakes and survey markers in the woods.

“They were putting stakes right under these heron nests,” said Leal Segura, neighboring property owner. “This whole approval process and the push to chop down those trees seems really hurried.”

The proposal by International Properties LLC Aderonke Mordi would extend Boulder Creek Lane Southwest north toward Cascade Creek. The road would abut Segura’s property and the property of another neighbor who also lives in the area through the heron rookery. The property would be divided to 10 lots ranging in size from two acres to about six acres.

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Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (John Molseed / jmolseed@postbulletin.com)
Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (John Molseed / jmolseed@postbulletin.com)

Segura did what she could to hit the brakes on the process. She had her attorney, Travis Ohly, file an injunction to halt work. She supplied Ohly with photos of dozens of heron nests in and around the grove of trees targeted for removal.

The next day, a Saturday, Ohly took his motion for a restraining order against development to District Court Judge Pamela A.W. King, who signed the order. The order prohibits removing any tree within 1,000 feet of a heron nest.

It was only the second time in 16 years of practicing law that Ohly presented an urgent order to a judge on duty over that weekend.

“The representation made to our firm was that the trees were to be taken down Monday,” Ohly said.

Neighbor Pat Adamson, represented by attorney John Giesen, also joined the case against the development. The order prevented “irreparable harm” and maintains the status quo until both parties can be heard in front of a judge, Ohly said.

However, the heron nests will probably not remain status quo.

Here be herons

Great blue herons are protected under the migratory bird act, which is enforced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The birds, which grow up to four feet tall, nest along waterways in Minnesota beginning in March in groups called colonies. They usually return to the same nesting site for generations. At the end of March or early April, herons will lay their eggs. Heron nests are afforded legal protection when there are eggs or chicks in the nest.

Eggs take about four weeks to hatch. It takes another 60 days before the chicks are capable of flight, and chicks eventually leave the nest around 80 days after hatching.

That mating cycle will help extend some legal protection on the site in Olmsted County, which is home to about 40 nests.

Wildlife experts say the nests are a unique find.

“My impression from looking at it is it’s been a long and well established rookery,” said Neil Slifka, regional nongame wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Slifka estimated about 30 to 40 occupied nests are on the site. Normally, herons nest in low lying areas near or surrounded by larger bodies of water, Slifka added.

“For this area, and for a site that’s more of an upland stand, it’s pretty unique,” he said. “I think considering its size, it is of some ecological significance.”

Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (Photo contributed by the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society)
Great blue herons sit among their nests in Rochester Township Thursday, March 25. (Photo contributed by the Zumbro Valley Audubon Society)

That such a large rookery has apparently existed for decades without documentation or detection is a rare discovery. Slifka said it’s the largest one found that the DNR not did not previously know existed. That the land surrounding it doesn’t have roads or trails and is privately owned likely gave the birds cover from the public and wildlife specialists.

“Made my month”

For someone who initiated legal proceedings to pause development, Leal Segura does not come across as zealous.

She preemptively apologized to a group of Zumbro Valley Audubon Society members who arrived at her home last Thursday to observe the birds in case the trip to her property wasn’t worth it.

“I was thinking, am I exaggerating?” she said. “Is this all in my head?”

As Segura walked through the woods to meet members of the Audubon Society observing the herons, people accidentally got too close to the birds' nests. A pair took to the air, followed by another and suddenly dozens of herons herons were circling the sky above the trees.

Leal Segura stands outside the woods by her home in Rochester Township where dozens of herons are nesting. (John Molseed / jmolseed@postbulletin.com)
Leal Segura stands outside the woods by her home in Rochester Township where dozens of herons are nesting. (John Molseed / jmolseed@postbulletin.com)

Sandy Hokanson, a member of the Audubon Society, reassured her Segura.

“This made my month,” Hokanson told Segura.

Hokanson said the rookery is doubtless the most significant spot for heron nesting in Olmsted County and likely one of the more significant spots in Southeast Minnesota.

Slifka reaffirmed the significance of the site when he visited the property earlier in the morning.

The Audubon members counted at least 30 birds.

Segura’s family has owned the home and property along Cascade Creek west of Rochester since 1976. She recalls seeing herons each year during migration but thought little of the significance of her and her neighbors’ property.

She recalls realizing the nest in the trees were heron nests.

“I noticed one and then another and suddenly, I saw dozens. all over this grove of trees,” she said. “Once you notice one, you look up and see them everywhere.”

What’s next

As of Monday morning, Connelly and International Properties LLC Aderonke Mordi had not responded to the restraining order delaying development work.

A phone message left for Connelly was not returned as of Monday.

Although the planning advisory commission unanimously approved the request to change the land designation to “suburban” from “resource protected/potential suburban,” the development proposal has not yet been approved by the county.

Segura said she hopes halting proposed work happened in enough time.

We want to show everybody this is an important resource for Olmsted County,” Segura said.

Advocates for the rookery have a limited time to make the case or negotiate a solution. Once the chicks leave the nest, the site loses protection under the Migratory Bird Act.

“It’s a tough situation for us in the nongame program,” Slifka said. “We can express the law, but at some point when the birds are off the site, we don’t have a lot of teeth here.”

Segura and rookery advocates established a Facebook page called "Save the rookery group" where group administrators will post pictures of the nesting herons and encourage people to get involved to help preserve the rookery.