Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Little Blue Heron

An adult Little Blue Heron stalks prey in the open waters of a Florida marsh. This is rather extroverted behavior; Little Blues often are inconspicuous, hunting from the shady verges of wetlands and waterways.

On my recent trip to the Sunshine State, I logged eleven species in the Ardeidae, or heron family, and most of them in good numbers. Many of these lanky-legged, dagger-billed, plume-bearing beasts are among the most conspicuous of Florida birds. Even the most casual observer of nature notices them.

Not so much the Little Blue Heron.

The name "Little Blue Heron" somewhat diminishes the true pizazz of this beautiful species. It suggests subservience to the - in the U.S. - much more widespread and commonly seen Great Blue Heron. The two are different as night and day.

Little Blue Herons are in the genus Egretta, which includes some of the world's truly gorgeous small herons. In the United States, discounting three species of major rarities that have strayed to our shores, the Egretta ranks include Snowy Egret, Tricolored Heron, Reddish Egret, and the subject of this post.

Of these four herons, I would say that the Little Blue is rather overshadowed by its more extroverted brethren. Snowy Egrets, with their electric white plumage replete with billowy plumes and golden slippers for feet, can't be missed. Tricolored Heron and Reddish Egret are the gonzo madmen of the heron world, often dashing about maniacally and tenting the waters with outspread wings to lure fish to the shade and their death.

The Little Blue Heron is typically reserved and methodical, slowly stalking quiet waters in search of minnows, crayfish, frogs or nearly anything else that is small and moves. Adults are stunning upon close inspection: the body is of a uniform rich slaty-blue that contrasts with a lustrous purple neck and head. The swordlike bill is powdery chalk at the base, but is dark-tipped as if the bird had gone fishing in a can of black paint.

First-year Little Blues look utterly different. They're white, and easily confused with other species of white herons and often are.

At a place known as Shark Valley in the Everglades, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of an unusually trusting Little Blue Heron. At this place, there is a 15-mile loop trail, and it's heavily used by touristos. As a result, many birds have become quite indoctrinated to optics and camera-toting bipeds and will allow exceptionally close approach.

I spent much time with the fellow above, observing his behavior and actions at near fingertip range. The heron cared not a whit and would not take his eyes off the water, even when he would practically walk over my feet. He was on the hunt, you see, and a hunting Little Blue Heron is a study in absolute, impeccable concentration.

At such close range, I could see that the heron's eyes are set in its skull to look forward, not straight out to the side. It's as if the bird is sighted in to look directly down the barrel of a rifle, and that powerful bill is the gun. For some reason, its eyes reminded me of those of a cat: round, inquisitive and all-seeing.

The Little Blue would ever so gently stalk the margins of this canal, slowly lifting and placing its size EEE feet like a boy trying to walk through a leaf-littered forest without making sound. Never did it divert those magnificent eyes from the task at hand, constantly bobbing, craning and tilting for new perspectives.

When prey was locked in on, POW! Forget about it. With an explosive uncoiling of that strong springlike neck, the heron would thrust its bill forward in a split second like an archer releasing an arrow. Whatever was the object of its desire probably never knew what hit it, its fate soon to be expulsion as guano after the heron's system extracted the good stuff.



Cathy said...

Gorgeous writing - aided and abetted by gorgeous pictures.

One of many fav lines:

"It's as if the bird is sighted in to look directly down the barrel of a rifle, and that powerful bill is the gun."

Beyond My Garden said...

The Little blue heron is very Art Deco. You captured it's loveliness very well.

Fixed Carbon said...

I agree with Cathy. Great writing.

Randy Kreager said...

I watched little blues at Bunche Beach and "Ding" Darling. I never tired of watching them hunt. I really enjoyed watching the reddish egrets "canopy" fish. It was great to watch them sprint through the water, stop, raise their wings to create shadows, and then spear the unsuspecting fish!

Jim McCormac said...

Thank you all, very much, for your comments and kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece, and the heron!

Doug Marcum said...

Wow Jim, excellent photos and story. I love those opportunities when you get birds that are unusually trusting and there is opportunity for observation!