Category Archives: Adult Heron

Who You Calling a Birdbrain? Great Blue Heron Fishing with a Twig

… I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water.

Wendell Berry
The Peace of Wild Things (excerpt)
The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

Great blue heron fishing using a twig to attract the fish.

Great blue heron using a twig to lure fish.

The great blue herons elicit many different emotions as I float in the kayak, watching them. There are moments of absolute stillness and peace there on the water, and mindful moments imbued with wonder. There’s love and concern for the herons I’ve come to know over the years. Sometimes there’s a touch of humor, and other times a sense of curiosity and a wanting to learn more. Sometimes the photos I take are capital A art, other times merely nature photos from the field. Today’s post is not art, just sharing observations about tool use by herons.

Yesterday’s post related my first-hand experience watching a heron use a seagull feather as bait. (If you missed that magical photo, please click here to catch up.)

Today’s post shows a different great blue heron fishing. This bird is a yearling, and may be the offspring of the feather-wielding heron.

The photo sequence below was taken almost one year earlier than the one in yesterday’s post. In today’s sequence, the great blue heron yearling wiggles a twig in the water to attract the fish.

In numbered sequence from top left:

  • The heron picks up the twig in frame one.
  • In frame two, she holds the twig in the water and wiggles it a bit.
  • Next, in the third frame, she has again picked the twig up out of the water.
  • At bottom right, she is once again wiggling the twig to lure in her prey.
Great blue heron fishing using a twig to attract the fish - sequence.

Great blue heron fishing using a twig to attract the fish – sequence.

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Thanks once more to Prairiebirder Charlotte for her Feathers on Friday prompt.

Also, thanks to the kind folks at NaBloPoMo National Blog Posting Month this November.

Thanks also to Skinnywench for the Word a Week Challenge: Favorite. No secret, great blue herons are my favorites.

Thanks again to Stewart Moncton for the Wild Bird Wednesday prompt.

Thanks to Petrel41 for the heron links provided in the comments section of yesterday’s post.

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Remember: Walk softly and carry a long lens.

(This took place August 28, 2010)

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

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Saturday Poker Game

You’re going to have some explaining to do, Mister! Another long poker session with the boys? You’re a father now!

Heading out first thing that Saturday morning, I was apprehensive that the herons’ nest might have been abandoned, as it had been a few years ago. Our Independence Day holiday was three days earlier. It had been a magical day on the water on the 4th of July, but that night back at home, I cringed in bed listening to hours and hours of fireworks going off from the general direction of the lake. My home is only a block or so away from the southern-most end of the lake, and from the relentless percussion of the booms, it was clear that some private homes were setting fireworks off over the water.

If it sounded that loud to me, what must it have sounded like to the herons? Adult herons frightened by loud noises have been known to abandon nests, and the chicks – how would that sort of boom and blast affect the hearing of chicks that are less than two weeks out of the egg?

So, it was with deep gratitude that, as I rounded the point and the island came into view, I saw the adult female standing guard patiently above the nest. Through the binocs, I could see the two chicks present and accounted for, and sparring with each other – butting bills together in the heron equivalent of lion cubs tussling and rolling each other over. So, three of four herons remained at the nest, the adult and two chicks.

Great blue heron on final approach to the nest.

Great blue heron on final approach to the nest.

And the adult male? Usually, he arrives at the nest around 11am, to relieve the female, but he was late, and getting later.

By 1pm, the female had climbed off the nest, and up a tall branch. She stood at full height for a long, long time, looking in the direction from which her mate usually arrives. The male stayed out on his fishing trip much longer than usual, and finally showed up for the changing of the parental guard around 2:30 pm. 

I’m not sure what goes through a mother heron’s mind, but while she was staring off so expectantly for her long-overdue mate, at one point her body language seemed to say, “You’re going to have some explaining to do, Mister! Another long poker session with the boys? You’re a father now!”
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 (This took place July, 2012)

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

Brown Bag Lunch in the Cove

There were many dragonflies – tasty and I love how their wings tickle on my tongue…

 © Babsje (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)   Great blue heron eye-to-eye with dragonfly.

Great blue heron eye-to-eye with dragonfly.

The eastern-most  end of the cove is the feeding ground and roostng spot for one of the older herons. He is very wary and gorgeous, and it’s always a thrill to see him here, wading, foraging for fish or sunning himself on the overturned willow that came down the year before.

Yesterday, I visited a couple hours earlier than prime feeding time, and so he wasn’t about. That made an opportunity to paddle in closer.

Right stroke… left stroke… right blade planted shallowly… now a broad arc around the white blossoms… left stroke… gliding straight now, past the lily pads… Gliding… Gliding… Gliding up to the fallen willow where he often preens.

Look! A big blue-grey flight feather floating there, a downy belly feather tuft, too. And beyond the willow, paddling deeper to where it stops being cove and starts being brook. What’s the name of that blue flower? Must look it up. This is where the yellow daisies bloomed last fall, it must be.

The water level is much higher than ever. How deeply I can paddle without bottoming out, or getting stuck, like last summer. That was a long slow slog back out.

Mustn’t tarry too long here, but what a beautiful place. Serene, still, and so many wild flowers, lush ferns. He may be back soon…

Right paddle planted deep, hard stroke left, bring the boat around sharply. Yes, like that. Stroke… Glide… Stroke… Glide… Glide… Stroke, stroke, stroke.

There! Back in neutral territory, away from his space. Can rest now, and cruise along on the breeze. Floating… Floating… 

I’m hungry. Where’s a good picnic spot? Ah, right here: not too close to the trees, a little shade, still waters, a good place for a floating lunch. Paddle leashed and propped ‘cross the cockpit. Lunch bag open. Hot tea, warm oatmeal – maple syrup and brown sugar.

Mmmm. That was very good. Satisfying in the fresh air. Well, time to head in. Close the tea mug, stow the lunch containers, don the gloves, paddle ready.

Wait, what’s that on the island shore? Hunkered down? Watching me…

Watching me…

Watching me?

Later that evening, just after dusk, back at home.

“How was your outing, dear?”

“Oh, so lovely. There were many dragonflies – tasty and I love how their wings tickle on my tongue…

“And so many sunfish – the smallish ones, not so many bones. Did you ever notice how irridescent they are? If you hover your wings just so over the water so the sun gets that glowy filtering while you stir the bottom just right with your left foot, they’re much easier to see… and to catch.

“But the most unusual thing happened. I was out at the cove, wading along the small island shore when I saw it, right before my eyes. A human…

“I watched in silence for the longest time.

“It is not so rare to see a human in the cove, and there’s one who sometimes watches me when I’m down at the end, where its more brook than cove. You know the place. She thinks I’m not aware of her presence, but I am. I just let her think that.

“I sometimes put on a show for her, preening, stretching my neck far back to get at that itchy spot right over my left shoulder. Or extending my wings half open, down low. 

“And I love to show her how to fish. How to be patiently still, toeing the water beneath the surface imperceptably, watching for the telltale glint of a fin, swish of a tail…

“Whoosh, thrust, submerge, a clean strike. The trout is mine!

“And I surface, wriggling trout speared. A beauty.

“Usually I just wolf it down, but sometimes –  sometimes – I want to show her. And so gradually I step and turn and stand there so she can see what a beauty I have caught. What a beauty I am.

“She loves to watch me feeding from a distance.

“And today?

“Today I watched a human in my cove…

“A human… feeding.

“They have curious feeding rituals, humans do.”

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 (This took place August 23, 2008)

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

Bodes Well

The mother heron perched on a limb high up in the trees on the shore directly across from the nest, in a horizontal posture that would let her take flight in a heartbeat. She was staring intently at the nest and island and the far shore, watching. I sensed a longing in her stock-still watchfulness…

The day before, I discovered one of our fledglings in a cove midway up the lake, about two miles north of the nest. This is quite an achievement for a heron that had fledged less than three weeks earlier. I’ve observed the fledglings as far as three-quarters of a mile from the nest, but never that far away, and never that far north.

It bodes well for that fledgling’s survival, as the shoreline and fishing there is much more suitable for their foraging. Only a narrow strip of land separates  that cove from the secluded inlet which is the best feeding ground, where I’ve watched the most fledglings grow over the past eight years.

Great blue heron three weeks after fledging the nest.

Great blue heron three weeks after fledging the nest.

The main concern for this one now would be territorial disputes with adult males in the area. Those can be exciting to watch, but can be deadly for the losing bird.

That day,  an adult heron worked the eastern bend in the shoreline, about twenty yards from the chick wading along the northern-most shore. The fledgling was definitely aware of the adult, and watched it for a while before starting to forage. The adult was facing away from the chick, and didn’t seem aware at all.

Eventually, the adult reversed direction, and she noticed the fledgling. I say “she” because a male adult would have become territorially aggressive and attempt to chase off the interloping youngster. Instead, this adult fluffed out it’s neck feathers fully, which can be either a greeting display or a territorial display, depending. There was no ensuing chase scene, and eventually the adult lazily flew to the west end of the cove and the fledgling continued on fishing.

Later on, I paddled down to the nesting island. No fledgling in the nest, I hadn’t seen one there in a week (which doesn’t mean they didn’t stop by at night). Both parents were in the general area, the male was perched on rocks alongside a tunnel, perfectly camouflaged – his grey, black, orange, rust, and white feather colors echoed by the rocks.

The mother heron, however, was perched on a tree limb high up in the woods on the shore directly across from the nest, in a horizontal pose that would let her take flight in an instant. She was staring intently at the nest and island and the far shore, watching. I sensed a longing in her stock-still watchfulness, waitingness. I swear she was watching for her fledglings.

I may be anthropomorphising, but my sense is that she had noticed that the fledgling was missing from the nesting grounds.

The adults sometimes venture there, to the north and the mid-lake area , and the fledgling may return back south, so eventually the herons will find each other again.

Still, I sensed a longing in her stock-still watchfulness, waitingness…
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(This took place September 2, 2012)

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

Wherein he Gets the Girl

Saturday at the lake with herons.

I barely could keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded, and then wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at them all, but one thing jumped out right from the start. The male. The male was missing the finger end of his wing…

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

Injured young great blue heron in territorial stance.

The first outing of the year each May is mostly about getting back into the elements, feeling the water flow beneath the kayak, tuning muscles that had been idled winter-long, and exploring the lake to inventory the changes over the winter months. Any expectations for great blue heron sightings are low; if lucky, I get to see a solitary heron foraging along the shoreline, but at this time of year, half the population is generally sitting on eggs wherever they nest, which isn’t very near this lake (or at least isn’t visible from navigable waters).

This year, true to form, I was the first to put in at the boathouse, and had a leisurely solo paddle along the north shore, then delving into a tranquil remote cove, and back up again to the farthest reaches north. Lovely. No herons in sight, not even a high-altitude flyover, but such a sweet paddle. Winter was mild here that winter, there had been no big snows, so not much had changed along any parts of the shoreline, and there were no new recumbent pine trees that had crashed down since the previous autumn. It was so very good to be back on the lake, even if there were no herons about.

After finishing that circuit, I turned south, venturing deeper to pass under the tunnels and beyond into the only part of the lake where water skiing and fast powerboating are permitted. It’s a dangerous place for kayaks and other people-powered things, but the high season wouldn’t start til the following weekend and the lake was very quiet just then. It was worth taking the chance of the kayak getting swamped.

Not far beyond the last of the tunnels is a very small island with very tall trees. Cormorants roost there in numbers, and a mute swan pair nest beneath the pines. Great blue herons had a large nest there that had been used for generations. Four years ago, though, they abandoned the nest mid-summer due to human encroachment. It was a very sad sight, the abandoned nest. Then, three years ago, a fierce storm took down the top of the nesting tree. It didn’t look promising on the island for the herons for a few years. Two years ago, though, just before the high season started, I paddled down to the island area and was excited to see a young heron on a branch of what remained of the still-tall roosting tree. He was snug against the trunk, preening. Had he been born on that island? Was he waiting to attract a mate? Would they start a brood there? I wondered.

So, that Saturday, I went back there to see if he was again in that roosting tree. Binocs up. Focus. Focus again. Wait for the powerboat wake to subside and then focus yet once more. Several cormorant nests with birds in them, nests that weren’t there last year. Focus higher in the tree. A heron, ten feet above the cormorant nest. No, wait – two herons, very close together.

I watched transfixed as they preened, and then one peeled off, soared over my head, and landed in the pines across the channel from the island. A few minutes later, he reappeared – carrying a stick in his beak – and soared back up to his mate.

I have often said that I would never photograph nesting herons up close because I wouldn’t want to interfere with their breeding by getting too close, and a suitable telephoto lens would be too expensive and too heavy for use in a kayak. Plus, it wouldn’t be the same traveling to one of the rookeries that get overrun by photographers. So, I was content knowing I’d never photograph them, myself.

But here they were on my lake that Saturday, nesting – no travel involved, no expensive telephoto needed, no interfering with their mating attempts, no crowded rookery.

Goosebumps erupted at the realization that these weren’t just any herons, they were birds that I’d been watching for seven summers. Each year, if lucky, I’ve been able to see fledglings from that year’s crop, but have never seen the actual nesting. Until that Saturday.

I watched from a safe distance for about an hour as the male flew off and returned, back and forth, with sticks for the nest, and then as the female wove them into the nest. It was a very new nest, probably not more than a couple days worth of building so far. Mostly the female did the weaving, and sometimes the male helped before flying off to gather sticks and boughs.

What a thrilling scene, to watch these herons nesting on my lake. Curiosity was intense as I wondered exactly which two of the birds I know so well were they. I could guess through the binocs, but wouldn’t be be able to tell for certain until I downloaded the photos afterwards.

I was exhausted when I returned home after kayaking for more than four hours and could barely keep my eyes open as the photos downloaded. By then, I wasn’t awake enough to pay proper attention and look at all the shots, but one thing jumped out at me right from the start: the male.

The male was missing the finger end of his wing – it was the same two-year-old male who had suffered traumatic wing-end damage the previous summer, and who had tried valiantly that autumn to seduce the older female heron. I had been apprehensive about his odds for survival with that injury, and was elated that my fears had been unfounded. He had survived migration and the winter with his damaged wing, and he had found a mate and was building his first-ever nest.

Gorgeous in his now-adult plumage, he got the girl.

(This took place May 19, 2012.)

And in the end, then, I was mistaken about never photographing nesting herons, wasn’t I? Thanks for the nudge, WordPress.

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

The Lesser of Evils

Drifting slowly towards the mouth of the creek, I saw a heron feather, a grey-blue blur bobbing against the green waters along the north shore.

Wedging the nose of the kayak into the mud under the old oaks, I scooped up the feather with my paddle blade. I had just bent forward to secure it under the deck bungee when a large shadow passed overhead.

A burst of feathers exploded onto the shore a couple of yards to my east. A great blue heron, so close. He obviously hadn’t seen the kayak under the tree canopy on his landing approach.

As I fumbled to get the camera out of the dry sack, another larger shadow cruised over my head, and a second heron swooped in about eight feet from the first.

Two herons, so close. So close!

The larger, alpha heron immediately puffed himself up to full size, feathers fiercely framing his neck and head. He bolted up the shoreline, running aggressively after the first, while I watched, momentarily unseen.

And then they both saw me.  When they skidded to a stop, the smaller heron was a mere three feet away from me, the alpha heron about six feet farther beyond.

The smaller heron looked to his left at the alpha, then swivelled that graceful neck back towards me, glancing about furtively. His cap feathers were erect, extending straight up – a blue and white shock of feathers pointing skyward.

He clambered down from the fallen birch and eased closer to me.

The alpha glared at us both, and lept up on the fallen birch trunk, fast on the heels of the small heron.

The small heron glanced again at the alpha, then eyed me, cautiously, apprehensively. 

Great blue heron weighing avenues of escape from alpha heron.

Great blue heron weighing avenues of escape from alpha heron.

The alpha glared at us from his perch on the fallen birch.

The small heron turned back and forth, from alpha heron to human, weighing, weighing the greater of the dangers, the lesser of the evils: alpha heron vs woman.

And then he made his move.

With one last glance over his shoulder at the alpha, and one last look straight into my eyes, imploring me to be the safe choice, the small heron made his move. He lowered his head, fully parallel to the ground and slowly eased to the front of my kayak, mere inches from my bow.

Slowly, slowly forward, inch by inch.

And then in a sudden blur, he bolted across the shoreline in front of me to safety.

Once two yards beyond the kayak, the small heron stopped and looked back at me. Safe.

The alpha heron glowered on from his perch on the fallen birch.

And me? That day, I was the lesser of evils.

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September 2, 2007

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

Close Encounter of the Heron Kind

Without warning, the juvenile great blue heron – peaceably fishing the north shore of the cove only moments before – straightened up to his full height. Then it dawned on me that his body posture had become suddenly “watchful.”

I followed his gaze down the cove, and there was the older adult male aggressively cruising full-speed straight at us.

The juvenile was riveted, almost cowering at the sight of the large adult. I took one last photo before he hopped-flew across the inlet to the south shore.

The adult swooped very low, gradually circled, and landed thirty yards away. He immediately fluffed up his back plumes, puffed up his breast, and strutted off in the direction of the younger bird. After a few yards of strutting, he broke into a full run and ran down the shore after the juvenile.

Adult male great blue heron in territorial display running along the shore.

Adult male great blue heron in territorial display running along the shore.

When the adult had closed the distance between them to less than 10 feet, the juvenile launched himself upwards and disappeared down the inlet.

The adult relaxed his ruffled feathers and lingered along the shore, fishing, his territory in the cove protected once again.

This was back in 2007, but the memory is as vivid as if it was just last week: it was the first time I’d seen a heron’s territorial display up close and personal. On that day, I managed a couple of photos of the adult’s feathers in display, but then the CF card filled up, and all I could do then was watch in silent wonder.

So, there are no shots of the close encounter between the juvenile and the adult for that patricular day. It was such a spectacle that I didn’t care about the camera.

And as I’ve said before, it is a choice to be present IN the moment, instead of focusing on the technology of recreating that moment for the future. In this instance, a full camera card brought me back to that lesson in mindfulness.

August 18, 2007

© 2007-2013 Babsje. (Http://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

If a picture is worth a thousand words…

Please click here for the latest additions to the Great Blue Heron Photo Gallery

Rainy Day Heron

20130503-142608.jpg ©2013 Babsje

Great Blue Heron fishing on a drizzly Sunday morning.

© 2011-2013 Babsje. (https://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

The Silence was Absolute

I went for a long walk late Sunday afternoon along the sidewalk that follows the contour of the reservoir. In places, the path is right next to the rocky shoreline, and in others the terrain between the path and the water’s edge is thinly forested with old growth pines and cherry, apple, and dogwood, and oak and maples, all blanketed by tall ferns and ground foliage. At this time of year, the ground plants are just beginning to sprout and the leaves on the bushes and shorter trees have not yet started, so there is a clear view through the woods to the water.

Many creatures live there, and every walk I take seems to reveal more of them. Last night, it was a large cottontail rabbit. Saturday night, a lone goose that had gotten stranded on the wrong side of the path and needed some encouragement to dip beneath the guardrail to safety.

Sunday, as I was walking, something made me stop suddenly and drew my attention to the right, into the woods and trees. From where I was at that moment about fifteen feet of thin, tall trees and underbrush sloped gently downward to the shoreline, and there, not ten feet away, stood a great blue heron.

They are usually very shy and erupt into flight at the first sensing of an approaching human, but for some reason this heron remained stock still. We stood there, staring eye-to-eye for a long, long time, though it could not have been more than twenty seconds. His eyes, doe eyes almost, soft eyes, like those of a deer. His long break, the orange-yellow of Aztec gold. His cap feathers, pure white. It felt as though I was looking at a being of kindness and intelligence, and an equal.

The silence between us was absolute.

We stood there, eyes-locked, watching each other, absorbing in full stillness, and then he leaned forward and lifted skyward in absolute silence, not an audible rustle of feather in the unfurling of exquisite wings – just soundless, effortless flight.

Suddenly, I wished I had brought a camera, and then just as quickly, I dismissed that wish – had the camera been there, I would have missed that experience. Instead of sharing stillness with the heron, I would have been absorbed in things like aiming and focusing and f-stops and bracketing and all of the composition things we do; by then the heron would have flown away, alarmed by my fidgeting with the gadgetry, and I would have missed the moment.

So, what does this story have to do with these photos? I used to do a lot of photographing in the mountains near Santa Cruz, with the vistas of mist-shrouded hilltop after hilltop marching to the Pacific, and along the Pacific Coast at sunset – hundreds of hours seeking to capture the perfect moment, until one day I realized I was missing the moment IN the moment by working so hard to preserve that moment for future viewing. Technology had gotten in the way of experiencing the moment in the now.

What does this story have to do with these photos? It’s a lesson in our choice to be present in the moment, as I was with the heron that afternoon, instead of focusing on the technology of recreating that moment for the future. It’s a lesson in mindfulness.

And the herons? They’re a study of Patience and Grace.

April 20, 2004

© 2004-2013 Babsje. (Http://babsjeheron.wordpress.com)

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