Heron Dreams

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

~Henry David Thoreau

We all have dreams, some bigger than others. I dream of experiences, being in wild places, and seeing the spectacles that nature has to offer. I have often wondered if other species dream. Having had dogs much of my life, and watching them as they seem to chase something in their sleep with paws twitching and soft barks, I think they do dream. I’m not sure about other species – whether, for instance, herons dream, but we met one earlier this week that seemed to dream big…really big.

Great blue heron

A stately great blue heron at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (click photos to enlarge)

We did a quick day trip on Monday down to Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. I just haven’t been able to get away as much as my soul needs, so a day-trip would have to do. A friend from work (who had never been) was able to travel with us so I was hoping for a good show for her sake. After a bitterly cold morning at Pungo (more on the Pungo portion of the trip in the next post), we headed over to Mattamuskeet mid-day to see what we could find. As is often the case, there was a stately great blue heron at the pool near the entrance along Wildlife Drive. But I noticed something different this time…

Great blue heron strikes

The heron strikes

There was something else on the island of grass…

The prize

The prize revealed

A huge fish! A mullet! Even though Mattamuskeet is a freshwater lake, this bird was on a canal outside the lake proper, one that connects via a long (~7 mile) system of canals out to Pamlico Sound, where striped mullet are very common. My apologies for posting so many images of this epic struggle, but I have always wanted to see a heron swallow a huge fish, and here it was, out in the open, a “dream” come true.

A beakfull

A lot to get your beak around

We watched as the bird tried to grab the still-flopping fish. It was a lot to get your beak around.

Getting a drink

The heron took frequent sips of water

The heron would work at grabbing the fish, then drop it, and almost every time dip the tip of its bill in the water. Was it taking a drink, removing slime, washing out a bad taste…who knows?

Stabbing the fish

A few sharp jabs with the beak eventually subdued the mullet

The heron used its stiletto beak in a series of quick jabs to try to subdue the mullet.

How do I get this thing off

Now…how do I get this thing off my beak?

It sometimes took a few shakes to get the fish off. After several bouts of spearing the fish, the mullet stopped moving.

Displacement behavior?

Displacement behavior?

Curiously, in between efforts to swallow the fish, the heron would every now and then grab some roots, sticks, and shoots of vegetation on the island. Is this some sort of displacement behavior? Taking out its frustrations on plants?

Almost there

A lot to lift

Not only was this fish a challenge in terms of its girth, it was a heavy lift for the heron. A typical adult great blue heron weighs about 5 pounds. Their upper bill is about 5+ inches in length. Looking at this photo, I estimate this fish to be about 14 inches in length (compare bill length to fish length). I found an online length-weight conversion estimator for fishes in Texas and used that to estimate the weight of this fish at about 1 pound – 1/5 the weight of the bird. So, that’s like me trying to gulp down a 40 pound hamburger!

eye to eye

Eye to eye

This photo “caught my eye”…the juxtaposition of the eye of the predator and the prey, now resigned to its fate. Our friend, Janna, suggested this caption…””that feeling you have when you realize who you have been trying to kiss”.

maybe if I wet it

Maybe if I get it wet…

We watched the struggle for about 20 minutes and reluctantly decided to head off to see some other areas of the refuge, wondering if the heron would ever be successful. We came back about an hour and a half later, and the heron was still at it. Another couple of photographers had stopped, but the heron was paying us no mind. It had eyes only for the mullet. While we were gone, the heron seemed to have figured out a better strategy for lifting the fish, and came oh-so-close to swallowing it a couple of times.

almost lost it

Almost lost it

But it almost lost it into the water at one point, managing a quick grab to pull it back onshore.

stand off

Pondering your dreams

The heron was starting to tire. It took longer breaks between feeding attempts. We watched another 20 minutes. The proud bird twice turned its back (maybe hoping we woudn’t see?) and caught tiny fish and gulped them down.

a quick snack

Settling for less, or just grabbing a quick snack?

It was getting late. The heron had been at this for at least two hours. We had spent almost 45 minutes watching the struggle, camera shutters firing away (I’m almost embarrassed to admit I took 892 photos of this battle), and there was no end in sight. It was time to leave and head for Pungo for what we hoped would be a great sunset show.

Really really big

Dream big

I hated to leave without knowing whether the heron realized its dream. But I guess I had achieved mine, even though I didn’t witness a successful end to the story. Perhaps the important thing, for both heron and human, is to dream in the first place.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.

~Walt Disney


The Long and Short of It

I admire herons, herons of all sorts. They have a stately posture, epitomize patience, and have bright eyes that can stare down anyone. My recent trip to Florida had lots of heron highlights. Here I report on the long and short of it, Great Blue Herons and Green Herons.

Standing four feet tall with a wing span of six feet, Great Blue Herons are among our largest birds, even though they weigh in at only 5 or 6 pounds. I was surprised to see them already nesting at Viera Wetlands. In fact, a volunteer said that they were re-nesting, as a recent storm had destroyed several nests that already had eggs. I have seen nesting colonies in NC that were in tall dead trees in swamps, but the ones at Viera were on top of palm trees out in the wetlands.

Great Blue Heron pair at nest silhouette

Great Blue Heron nesting pair at Viera Wetlands

The herons were sitting quietly on their nests early in the day, but as the sun got higher, the male flew off and began collecting sticks. He would drop down to a broken branch laying on the ground and inspect it, before twisting off a section and flying back to the nest. Occasionally, a male would go to an unoccupied nest and steal a stick to take back to his mate.

GBH flying into nest with sticks

Male Great Blue Heron flying into nest with a stick

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 1 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 3 Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks

Once he lands, he presents the stick to the female, and she accepts it (not sure what happens if she doesn’t like a stick).

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 5

Female heron inspects the stick brought to the nest by her mate

She occasionally simply plucked the stick from him without standing up and carefully placed it in the nest. He would then fly off for another. At other times, there was more ceremony involved, with both birds stretching and bill pointing before she accepted the stick. Must have been a really good stick!

Great Blue Heron arriving at nest with sticks 4

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nest 1

Great Blue Heron pair with stick at nestA few times there was a wing stretch display involved in the stick transfer, and often there would be a prolonged period of neck stretching and bill pointing.

Wing stretch display

Wing stretch display

Great Blue Heron pair at nest

Bill pointing and neck stretch display

The stick ferry finally ended for the morning and I walked down the border of the wetland dike. Soon I found one of the many diminutive Green Herons I saw on the trip. Green Herons are one of our smallest herons, standing only 18 inches tall with neck outstretched, and have a wing span of 26 inches (about one third that of a Great Blue Heron). They are found in freshwater swamps and marshes throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and up the west coast. Green Herons are richly colored in shades of chestnut, dark glossy green, and streaks of beige and white.

Green Heron on dried reeds

Green Herons are richly colored when viewed up close

They have piercing eyes and are slow motion stalkers of fish and other aquatic organisms at the edge of marshy areas and open beds of wetland vegetation. Green Herons are one of the few birds known to use tools to hunt. They have been observed using twigs, feathers, and other objects to create “fishing lures”. They drop the object on the water surface, luring small fish to within striking distance.

Green Heron profile

Hunting in a stand of reeds

Green Heron in pennywort bed

Green Heron hunting in bed of Marsh Pennywort

Often, as I prepared to get a shot of one that had momentarily stepped out in the open, it would raise its crest feathers and jump out in pursuit of a nearby Green Heron that had escaped my notice. I’m not sure if these were territorial interactions over food, breeding territory, or both.

Green Heron raised crest 1

Green Heron with raised crest

This display was usually accompanied by a neck stretch designed to make this tiny marsh hunter appear bigger.

Green Heron with neck stretched

Green Heron with neck stretched

Both species are a joy to watch, and I have decided that time spent with herons, short or tall, is time well spent.

Green Heron preening

Green Heron twisting itself while preening