Great Blue Heron Encounter

It’s the second week of November already! Time passes so quickly these days. I raise my head from my day to day busy-ness and see weeks have flown. Ruby and I headed out for a walk around half past three, in what has now become twilight. As I haven’t written field notes in ages, today was my day! I feel blessed every day, however, today our walk afforded an unusual gift.

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Ruby looks downriver October 2013

My walk starts in the pines to the east of the driveway and winds down through mixed hardwoods toward a low wet area that emerges onto the riverbank. I generally pause here to scan the river. The water flows around a small bend, a wedge-shaped piece of ledge that descends into the water and has a few flat stepping stones just off shore where I like to stand (to the left of Ruby’s head in the photo). I watch minnows feed in the swirling pools and occasionally a larger fish in the deeper water. When I stand here, it feels like I am standing on water with the view downriver appearing close to eye level, which broadens the effect.

The banks are covered with cinnamon-colored, billowy mounds of dried Japanese knotweed. Desiccated tawny grasses wave in the breeze amid seed heads of last summer’s flowers. With the overcast sky, the landscape seemed to have little color other than dull gray. A few sparse honeysuckle bushes offered up a smattering of gold.

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Ruby begged her usual “stopping” biscuit, which I dutifully provided. Sometimes I wonder, “Just who is the boss here?” She’ll persist, whining annoyingly until she gets a treat. Then she’ll settle down so I can observe and enjoy the surrounding Nature. She gets into it as well, sniffing the breeze vigorously and scanning for movement.

I heard a splashing noise and glimpsed about thirty feet downriver to see a juvenile great blue heron. At first, it appeared to be stumbling awkwardly and I wondered if something was amiss. I soon realized that it was chasing a fish up the shallows, striking and missing, before coming to stand in the quiet pool just up from the fast-moving shallows. It looked skinny and small, with no crest and seemed either not to see Ruby and me or was so intent on catching dinner that it ignored us. It flapped occasionally and in a gangly way, moved into position and then froze.

After a minute, it slowly extended its neck out then jabbed the water and came up with a twelve-inch trout! I gasped in surprise; I had been watching this fish for half the summer and there it went! “So that was its purpose,” I thought. There are so few trout that the big ones always get our notice and we are quite possessive about them. (I know they are fair game to any fisherman with a license, but I’d rather that they fish elsewhere and leave ‘our’ fish to live here in the river.) On summer evenings, we enjoy watching them rise to feed on insects as we sit in chairs high above on the riverbank. But the heron is a different story, this is its habitat and I am the visitor. I was sad to see the fish go, but what a glorious transition, to become a heron!

utahbirds.org  ©Milton G. Moody

utahbirds.org ©Milton G. Moody

I watched as the heron stood and waited for the fish, which would occasionally flap its tail, to die. With long, swooping steps it crossed the stream and placed the fish on the rocks. Several dagger-like jabs with its beak ensured the kill. Then the heron laid its head close to the ground, keeping perfectly still with its beak holding the fish. I could see its gullet expanding, then it would tilt its head up and back so the fish would slide a bit further down. It took three times to get the fish all the way in. Amazing feeding habit! I had never before seen a heron feed on a large fish, which in this case, was half as long as its neck. It was not a fully-grown heron but it seemed to have the art of fishing down quite well.

Once finished with its meal, it gave a satisfied glimpse up the river at us, but seemed not disturbed by our presence, perhaps due to its youth. Either it was nonplussed and used to seeing humans or it didn’t know what humans were and was not afraid. Usually herons fly away when they see us here on the river.

As it strolled along the stream, I realized that heron knees are jointed to bend forward, whereas most animals’ bend backward. It was something I had never noticed before. It is what gives their gait that awkward look. It dipped its beak now and again, either to sip water or snag a minnow.

You might wonder about how Ruby responds to wildlife. She is pretty well trained to stay by my side and just observe. She likes to chase squirrels and rabbits for short sprints, but she is hopeless at catching anything, which is fine with me. We’ve encountered deer and ducks, but she mutely peers back at them. Once when a bear was crossing onto our side of the river as I was hollering to scare it back, she wouldn’t even bark at it, which would have been helpful!

After standing perfectly still, observing the heron for nearly thirty minutes, I was feeling quite frozen and stiff with the cold breeze blowing upon me. I needed to move though I wanted to stay longer, even Ruby was starting to get antsy. The heron stood its ground as we moved up the rock ledge. I last glimpsed it continuing its leisurely stroll downstream.

According to my medicine cards, Heron’s message is Self-Reflection, urging us to follow our intuition towards our certainty of purpose. I have been feeling introspective the past few days, evaluating my path, so the arrival was timely. I feel honored for the visit and to have witnessed it feeding. Nature always provides the most precious of gifts.

About Eliza Waters

Gardener, writer, photographer, naturalist
This entry was posted in Country Living, Field Notes, My Photos and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Great Blue Heron Encounter

  1. Kina says:

    Amazing! The pictures are beautiful.

  2. Spy Garden says:

    Love these “field notes”! So nice you have such a pretty place to walk right outside your home. I miss the creeks and rivers and swimming holes of new england!

    • Eliza Waters says:

      Yes, it is a blessing…it makes it hard to leave. Vacation places seem too hectic, crowded and noisy. I miss the peaceful solitude of home, so consequently we rarely leave! My husband jokes that we bought our retirement home first (we were in our thirties).

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