Epic Great Blue Heron Swallows Ginormous Fish

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

How about a round of applause for this plucky great blue heron?

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

Did you guess that the great blue heron was successful in swallowing the fish this time? Guess again.
Note: This is Part 3 of a series of posts.
To catch up, please click here for Part 1, and click here for Part 2.

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

She has dropped the fish back into the water once more, and tries to get it into her mouth, at left.
In the next frame, she takes a rest, but notice that she holds the fish under the water with her left foot. After that short break, which lasted 11 seconds according to the timestamp, she tries again.

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

Her final attempt at swallowing the enormous fish. She pulls it from the water in the first frame, turns closer to the shore in the middle, and at right once again pulls the fish into her mouth. The photo timestamp on the last frame in this photo is 3:59:06. The timestamp on the photo at the top of this post is 3:59:07. It only took one second to flip the fish fully into her mouth. Remarkable.

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

Great blue heron after swallowing the ginormous fish. At left, the shape of the fish is visible in the heron’s neck. In the middle frame, the fish has slid farther down, and at right the heron twists her neck to the left and then to the right to hasten the fish’s movement fully down her throat.

© Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

She paused on the shoreline after swallowing the huge fish, and then she wandered further east. Her gait was heavy and slow, her hunger sated for days most likely. I’m not sure how much a 2+ foot-long pike weighs, but safe to say she took in a fair percentage of her own body weight in that single meal.

Eating such a large fish can be deadly for herons. While they often abandon fish that are too large to swallow – which I expected her to do that day – they sometimes swallow fish too huge for their digestive systems to process, which is fatal to both fish and bird.

It was a nature photographer’s dream to capture everything that unfolded that day, and I was thrilled at the outcome: the great blue heron got her fish.

My emotions ran the gamut from excitement (at seeing the heron near the fisherman), to apprehension (at her getting too close to him), to alarm (when he whistled to her and started feeding her baitfish), to protectiveness (when I had to move close myself in case she got tangled in fishing line), to amazement (when she surfaced with that 2+ foot fish), to curiosity (at whether she’d be able to swallow it), to anxiety (about whether any of the photos I was firing off would turn out at all), to happiness for her (when she finally swallowed the fish without choking). It was a roller coaster.

She looked beautiful walking down the shore in the late afternoon sun.

But the question remained: would she survive digesting the fish? There were flashes of dread while I was watching her, wondering if I was witnessing the ultimate cause of her demise.

Would I see her again?

The boathouse closed for the year that weekend. It would be at least seven months before that question would be answered

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Thanks to Ailsa for her Weekly Travel Theme: Still prompt. (When the fisherman tossed the enormous fish to the waiting great blue heron, I gasped, silently. While the heron attempted to eat the fish, I sat stock-still in my kayak, not daring to move lest the heron get spooked and choke on the fish.)

Thanks to Cheri Lucas Rowlands and WordPress for the Weekly Photo Challenge: Grand prompt. She asked for jaw dropping, grand. The great blue heron literally dropped her jaw at the sight of the grand fish being reeled in, and my jaw dropped as the rest of this story unfolded that day.)

Thanks once again to Stewart Monckton for the Wild Bird Wednesday prompt.

Thanks to Sue Llewellyn for her Word A Week Photography Challenge: Shadow challenge. I shadowed the heron for a long time, in order to make sure it wasn’t harmed by the fishing line or hooks. It is not recommended to get so close or feed any wild animals, but this bird was obviously already familiar with fishermen as food sources before that day.

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A selection of my heron and flower photos is now available at the Five Crows Gallery in Natick, MA. Drop in and see the work of the many wonderfully creative artists who show there when you’re in the area.

Five Crows is on FaceBook. To give the gallery a visit, please click here.

Remember: Walk softly and carry a long lens.™

The Tao of Feathers™

(These photos were taken October 7, 2007.)

© 2013 Babsje. (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

Great Blue Heron, Fishing, Kayaking

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Posted on December 14, 2013, in A Word A Week Photo Challenge, ardea herodias, Art, Birds, Fishing, Great Blue Heron, Kayaking, Nature Photography, Photo Essay, Photography, postaday, Weekly Photo Challenge, Weekly Travel Themes, Wildlife Photography and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. Pike have teeth, don’t they? Yikes. How the heck did she swallow that?!

  2. I am sure she will be fine.

  3. Please excuse my ignorance, but how can one tell whether it’s a she or a he?

    • That’s a good question, glad you asked. Great blue heron males and females look very similar, the males are generally a bit larger. There are those who say the males can have darker legs, but I’m not sure how reliable that is for all great blues. Males tend to be more aggressive when defending their feeding territory – females may feed with other females and juveniles (depending on things like available food supply), whereas males will chase off females and juveniles more readily.

      In the case of this specific great blue heron, I have watched her behavior for about 8 years, and have seen her chased off by the male, and have seen her when males have attempted courtship with her, and have seen her with her fledglings in some years.

      That said, if I didn’t know her history and was seeing her for the first time, it wouldn’t be easy at first look to tell.

      Thanks for visiting and for your very good comment question.

  4. awesome post! I love to watch animal behavior and always hope to capture it in photos. That heron is amazing!

  5. It really is amazing to watch one of these birds — or any that live near the water — catch and swallow a fish. Let’s see a sword swallower try a live pike. 🙂

    • Thanks, John, great comment about an sword swallower catching a live pike – those teeth and massive jaws would not go down easilty. It also boggles the mind how herons catch and eat crustaceans with those pincers and claws flailing.

  6. Amazing! What an exhausting roller coaster ride of emotions for you!
    ~Lindy

  7. As we say here in the UK- Cor blimey that’s a mouthful! I’d be buzzing for days if I caught all that on camera! Great set of posts 🙂

  8. Incredible story, incredible photos. The top photo especially – it actually tells the whole story in one frame!

    • Thanks, Judy, I’m very glad you like this story. I debated about putting that photo at the top of the post or placing it at the end, so I’m glad you said what you did, thanks!

  9. Pikes are long, but have the advantage for herons of not being broad … Here is about a grey heron (a bit smaller than a great blue heron) and a pacu:

    http://dearkitty1.wordpress.com/2008/01/22/dutch-grey-heron-catches-amazon-fish-2/

    • Yes, you’re right, the slender shape of the pike is to the heron’s advantage. I have seen them successfully eat large-mouth bass with much broader bony heads, but as your post at the link you’ve kindly shared here shows, they can also choke and die when a fish is too broad. Thanks for your comment!

      • My pleasure 🙂 I hope your herons will not catch big pacus discarded from aquariums 🙂

        • Indeed, me, too! People discard the strangest creatures when they grow too big, even pet alligators have been found in our rivers. Our New England climate is not compatible with tropicals, but as your story shows, near plants with warm effluent, it may be possible.

  10. Beautiful story, thank you for taking us on such a trip into the nature. I hope she will be okay after swallowing the big fish, which was such a feat!

  11. Wow, incredible series. I saw a Grey Heron tackling a rather large Eel a few years ago, you post just brought back memories.

    • Thanks for your kind comment, Dave, glad you like it. That must have been quite a sight, a grey heron with a large eel. We have eels at our lake, but I’ve only seen small ones. It would be impressive to watch a heron capture a big one.

  12. Great serie! Lovely birds!

  13. Great series of GB heron photos. It is cool watching them hunt for food. Have a great week!

  14. That is a fantastic series of photos and it must have been thrilling to watch the action.

    • Thanks so much, Mick – I appreciate your kind comment. And you’re right, it was absolutely thrilling, and I’m grateful to have been in the right place at the right time WITH a camera.

    • Thanks so much, Mick – I appreciate your kind comment. And you’re right, it was absolutely thrilling, and I’m grateful to have been in the right place at the right time WITH a camera.

  15. Hi. This was a wonderful series of great shots to see. that Heron sure can eat FISH!

  16. Amazing capture and nice story here! Wow I couldn’t believe she managed to gulp down that huge predatory pike okay! So did the fish put up a good fight, once eaten, was the unlucky prey swallowed down wriggling the whole way as well?! I can’t help but pity the poor fish in its fate of role reversal but she must have been hungry and that is sure to satisfy her belly! 😉

    -Kyle

    • Hi Kyle – I’m glad you like this one – it took quite a while for her to finish off that pike, and it always surprises me that the herons can fly sosoon after such a huge meal.

  17. Just stumbled across this interesting blog again! I have never witnessed such an event before. I wonder, wouldn’t a fish that size stand a slim chance at life to wriggle out and escape her stomach or even damage it with its sheer size and those pike teeth?? Does the heron manage to digest it bones and all!? They must be strong birds to fly so shortly after a meal and I can’t imagine the pike is enjoying its “plane ride” much! 😉

    • Glad you enjoyed this photo. Yes, the Heron managed to swallow the pike, and survived dinner despite the size of that fish. Herons have been known to die when trying to eat a fish that is far too large for them, but as you can tell by the photo here, they are able to eat some very large ones. Thanks for commenting here.

  18. Imagine being that fish wriggling all the way down I wonder if it was still alive inside the heron’s tummy.

    • Hi Angela – thanks for your good question! It took the Heron quite a few minutes to swallow that huge fish, it was an epic struggle and fascinating to watch. I believe the fish may have been stunned at a minimum. Thanks for visiting! Best, Babsje

    • Thanks for your kind words. Glad you like this post’s Great Blue Heron photo. I feel fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time with a camera that day. Best, Babsje

  1. Pingback: Plucky Great Blue Heron’s Happy Ending | Babsje Heron

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