Dear Beautiful Heron, Please watch your step as you tiptoe silently through the long grasses and past the purple thistle. Do you remember those baby alligators that you like to eat? When they grow up, those big alligators might take a bite out of you. If they catch you, they will eat you whole, feathers and all.
Also silently lurking nearby in the grass is this large alligator. If he is hungry, the Great Blue Heron could be his next meal. Yikes! The food chain is merciless.
February 28, 2020 — It was just after dawn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with temperatures hovering around 8 degrees Fahrenheit, and I was scouting for wildlife with three other photographers. We spotted a Bald Eagle high in a frosty tree. A long lens (400 mm Sony) afforded us a closer look.
For my friend Chris, this was his first time seeing a bald eagle. I had just been bald eagle watching and photographing in Florida the previous week, but seeing a Bald Eagle is always exciting.
We were only weeks away from the lockdown to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, but we were blissfully unaware. How blessed we were to complete this trip to Wyoming before the crisis hit the United States. I think of that childhood game of Musical Chairs. This is where we were just before the music stopped.
You might wonder if that Yellow Crowned Night Heron knew how to “pick a crab,” if you read the previous blog (with the heron holding a live crab in its beak). My friend Mary and I watched the heron dismantle and texturize and finally swallow the crab. This series of photographs will share the experience with you:
As a Baltimore native, I know how to pick a crab: first you remove the claws and legs, (although there is more than one right way.) The heron shook the crab hard enough to knock those off. You can see the claws on the sand.
While I treasure a close-up of each species of bird in its exquisite detail, and I get excited about a more rare capture of a bird in flight, the trifecta of wildlife photography thrills for me is to witness a drama between animals — the rare sighting that leaps beyond good color, detail and composition to tell a story.
Such was my luck late one afternoon on Sanibel Island in February. So far the visit to J.D. Ding Darling Nature Preserve had been pretty uneventful, and I was apologizing to my friend Mary who accompanied me. We had planned our trip to coincide with low tide to observe the large birds feeding, but few white pelicans or roseate spoonbills were in sight.
Here is how the action unfolded: We set up my tripod between the road and the water’s edge to observe for awhile when a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron emerged from the brush. About 4 onlookers pointed and whispered to each other as it paused in the gentle afternoon light. At Ding Darling, most bird watchers are quiet and respectful of wildlife.)
This heron took graceful giant strides, and within a few minutes, it had grabbed a crab in its beak and held it up in the light right in front of us. I had to adjust my 150-600mm zoom lens to 400mm to see the entire bird in the frame, and I could not believe my luck with the beautiful light and the chance to witness the scene.
We quietly contained our amazement (oh my God!) as the heron shook and stabbed the crab til its legs and claws came off and the prey was manageable to go down the hatch, right in front of us. I have numerous photos of this drama, and I will share them with you in the next few blog posts.
I’m now grateful that I saved this series of wildlife photos for this quiet time we are all experiencing now. Please share this blog with your friends who may enjoy it too.
The first clue to the unfolding scene of predators and prey was the Bald Eagle with fresh blood on its white feathers. Our group of four photographers pulled off the road in Jackson Hole to study what was happening on this snow covered hillside.
Soon, we identified two bald eagles and a golden eagle perched on boulders. The golden eagle was much larger than the Bald Eagle, but as the scene appears compressed though the 600mm lens, you can’t see the size difference in the photo.
Yes, with binoculars we spotted a bloody carcass between the boulders with a magpie (black and white bird common to the mountainous ecosystem) currently picking at the carcass. The eagles must have had their fill.
Up the hill, watching over the scene was a lone coyote. He was likely the killer of the elk, who may have wandered away from the herd, not feeling well.
Scores of elk stay safe in a tight herd in the valley. It is also possible that a pack of wolves took down the elk. All these animals and moose too roam the national park in great numbers. Soon the bears will break hibernation and join the throng.
While we humans tend to pity the prey, we understand that all wildlife have to eat, and this is Nature’s way. We are privileged to witness it.
While I was leaving Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary at 5pm, I witnessed a dramatic ambush. A Red-Shouldered Hawk swooped into the woods and nearly took out a quick moving Red-Bellied woodpecker. As the hawk flew in and just as quickly flew away, the woodpecker, traumatized by its near-death experience, shrieked and jumped around frantically for several minutes. I recognized the behavior as a way of communicating, “HOLY —-. That hawk almost KILLED me!!!”
I set up my tripod as quickly as I could and made some images of the woodpecker as he momentarily rested on the trunk of this tree. When I got home to examine my photos, I was able to identify the type of bird he was. While the hawk’s behavior is part of Nature’s food chain, I could relate to the anxiety of the little woodpecker. That was one scary experience!
It was love at first sight when I spotted a Red-Shouldered Hawk for the first time. He perched on a high tree branch and kept his eyes trained on the water below, watching for prey. I waited and waited for him to take flight until my arms needed a rest. I wanted to capture him in flight, but his watch outlasted mine.
My luck had not run out. About 5 minutes later along my hike in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, another couple had stopped to watch something low in the swamp. It must be the mate! Another red-shouldered hawk was foraging in the forested area, and I got some closer shots of its beautiful plumage. Sure enough, you can observe the red shoulder from this angle.
These raptors are fierce hunters, feeding on mammals as large as rabbits and tree squirrels, small reptiles and even birds of all sizes including the Eastern Screech Owl. Their length is typically 23-24″. Of these two hawks, I’m not sure which one is male and which is female.
At first I thought the Great Blue Heron had just caught a freshly hatched baby alligator. I didn’t dare to creep any closer, not knowing where the Mama Alligator was. My best judgement was to focus and shoot, focus and shoot about 6 times after I observed the heron snatch his prey with silent quickness.
I took this series of photographs while the heron juggled the prey ( fish perhaps?) in its beak, getting ready to swallow it.