A summer tale of two blue herons
June 3, 2013
John James Audubon's description of the behavior of the great blue heron matches my amateur observations of a heron I used to watch, season after season, on the edges of a Minnesota lake. I never got a decent picture of him, for all the behavioral reasons that Audubon describes. Though great blue herons roost high in trees in similar locations and come together in large groups to choose mates for a season, by nature they are solitary. Wary and possessed of superb sight and hearing, they fly off at any intrusion. My Minnesota heron allowed only binocular approaches. But on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico I met a different heron and I have close-up photos of him and all his interesting body parts — a live version of the elegantly posed dead bird that Audubon painted.
In the first of my great blue heron photos, the almost 4-foot-tall bird stands close to a fisherman, watching him bait his line. This heron is not really blue — more like a slate gray, with reddish hints on his belly where the feathers cover the upper reaches of the stilt like legs. He has a knobby ankles midway down the his thin leathery legs, and he is balanced on claw-like feet, with three prongs in the front and one in the back. Each prong is capped by a thick, inch-long curved horn, ending in a wicked point. Audubon described shooting a great blue on its perch high in a tree and having the bird fall over, but remain hooked to the tree by his feet.
Higher up, the bird is prettier. The front of his long gray neck is softly striped in black and white. Pinkish white fronds trail from his lower neck and his rump. A little toupee of black feathers sits atop his head and trailed by some long, narrow black feathers behind it that look like a pony tail. These fringy accoutrements are his breeding plumage, which he will shed in the summer, after the job is accomplished and he is into the parenting business. His eyes, the color of van Gogh's sunflowers, stare out over a paler yellow sword of a beak. While he is grounded, his wings look uniformly gray, but in flight their 6-foot span is much darker toward the wing tips.
Viewed through binoculars, my Minnesotan heron looked very similar to his Florida cousin.
Great blue herons live all over the country. In the middle regions, they migrate south in the winter, but they range up and down the coasts all year. Wadeable water is the key to the heron's choice of location. I always saw the Minnesota heron standing patiently in shallow water at the lake's edge, scanning and listening. His movements were slow and delicate, until, with lightning speed, he'd impale a fish with his dagger of a beak. I saw him at all hours of the day, standing in solitary elegance. But if I approached he lifted his huge wings and took off, trailing his feet and extending his neck until he reached the right altitude to pull in the landing gear and shorten his neck.
The Florida heron, however, had found another way to eat, which explains his willingness to be photographed. The man in the picture caught a foot long fish and threw it to the heron, who caught it, tossed it into the air, opened his beak wide, and swallowed it whole. His neck became fish-shaped as the still living animal was propelled down the gullet. Audubon found snakes, crustaceans, small mammals and even other birds in blue heron stomachs. Sometimes the fish were headless, suggesting beheading before swallowing, probably a useful move since the heron intestines, according to Audubon, are the diameter of a quill.
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After his meal, my Florida heron hung around the fisherman's blanket and umbrella for awhile. In my last picture, he stands, back to the camera, lined up with the fisherman, his daughter and grandson, staring out at the Gulf of Mexico. I call the picture "Adaptation."
Author Betsy Holter is a volunteer at WMSC.