Wednesday, August 24, 2011

High Noon with a Great Blue Heron

Dateline Thursday, July 14, 2011, 12PM.

Just back from the Adirondacks, I set out for Innisfree Garden with my camera, too-short telephoto zoom lens, and binoculars, a bottle of water, floppy hat, and all-important three-legged folding stool ready to be stashed in the pockets of my photog vest.  I figured, with my luck of late, the camera would stay slung over my shoulder and the stool stashed, but I consoled myself that Innisfree is always a nice place for a walk.

I had a little trouble getting out of the house that morning.  What caused the delay, I don’t recall, but likely nonessential errands that seemed essential at the time.  So, as is my wont, I arrived at Innisfree on a beautiful day at high noon.  Not exactly, so the lore goes, the best time for watching, let alone photographing, birds.

The parking lot was beginning to fill up.  It’s a small lot, but I knew this would decrease my chances.  It seems folks actually like to talk as they walk, scattering the birds before them, or sit in chairs and talk near where birds are active.  They act as if this were a pretty garden, open to the public, and not untouched wilderness where a solitary hiker hiked in deep and won the right to set up a solitary camp.

Self, I said, the thing is, you’re not a solitary hiker off in the wilderness, but just one of many visitors driving in and parking, with four dollars in hand to pay the entry fee.  Self, I said, if you’d set aside those errands you simply had to run, you could have been here when the gates opened and had the garden to yourself a while.  So, I said, give it a rest, and enjoy a nice walk on a beautiful day.

My wise counsel to Self taken, I walked downhill to join the path around the lake.  At the bottom of the hill, I stopped to take in the view and admire the waterlilies that had come into flower.

And lo, I saw before me that great evader of my photographic efforts:  a great blue heron stalking fish.  That’s it, I said to Self.  Today, you’re not walking anywhere unless the heron makes you.  Today, you’re going to get a clear, clean photograph of it in flight, or at the very least, catching a fish.

The heron was far out in the water, too far for my too-short lens.  But I nonetheless pulled my three-legged stool from my back pocket, remembered to pull the water bottle out so I didn’t sit on it, got my camera out, too-short lens attached, took off the lens cap (this often gets forgotten), set it for repeating shots, and sat.

And sat.  And sat.

Do you know how long a heron can stand immobile when it’s intent on a meal?  They’re like those gold-painted mimes you sometimes see down in the New York City subways.  They can stand still for a long, long time.  I sat there, probably fifteen minutes—nothing for the record books, and certainly not for the bird watching record books—but far more than I usually invest in a single go, and that heron did not move.  Well, maybe a step or two, maybe a little craning of the neck or tilt of the head, but that was all.

Then, behind me, a strolling couple stopped and asked me, “Oooh, is that a stork?  Oh, I don’t know anything about birds.”  I put my camera down and turned their way for the split second it took to muster, “It’s a great blue heron.”  In that moment, the heron dove into the water.  “Oh, look, it’s caught a fish!” they said.  I didn’t see it of course, because I'd turned my head.

They strolled on, the heron entirely forgotten.  I censored my thoughts about this interaction and turned my focus back to my bird.

Overhead, I noticed a lot of fluttering in the trees.  I kept my camera up, one eye on that heron, but these birds were really close . . . and they were cedar waxwings, with the pretty markings on their wing and tail.  They were so close that I simply had to take some photographs.

This, of course, was the heron’s cue to fly off.  That’s it, I thought.  Party's over.  I gathered up my water bottle and folded my stool.

But the heron landed, not far away, and closer to the edge of the lake.  I was off on the spot, got as close to the shore as I could without falling in, and set myself up again.  This time, I thought, I would pretend I was a professional Audubon photographer, so focused on my quarry I couldn’t possibly respond should I be asked (as I was the next time I missed a shot of the heron diving for food):  “Is it catching fish?  What do they eat?”

Of course, I couldn’t resist responding with the single fact I knew.  “Well, they eat frogs, too.  But that one went down too smoothly.  Must have been a fish.” “Eeeww,” they said, and off they walked.  (I filed that away as a good conversation-stopping technique.)

I followed that heron around the lake, aiming my camera at its eye, trying to keep it in focus as it flew, and, of course, taking dozens of shots of it standing still.  Finally, inevitably, it flew entirely out of photographic reach.

Ah, the great blue heron.  Perhaps not rare, but still magnificent:  spectacularly prehistoric, yet at the same time intensely modern, as if fashioned by some combination of Picasso and Modigliani.

And every now and then I get a lucky shot.


shoreacres said...

I love the herons. Their patience is infinite, and their adaptability is quite remarkable. There's one I became quite fond of near Galveston. He liked to prowl the Gulf's edge, and cadge fish from the fishermen. Ever so much easier than all that waiting!

I would think you've read Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Your post reminded me of her chapter on stalking - all true, and quite funny, particularly her mention of the classic rule for stalking: "Sop often 'n' set frequent". Which is precisely what you did.

What an enjoyable read!

Elaine Fine said...

We once had a Great Blue Heron who lived by a pond near our house. I never saw more than one, and I assumed that because I only saw one, and I saw him or her often, that s/he was the only Great Blue Heron in our whole area. I wondered why it decided to live here, of all places, and why I never saw it fly. I used to get pretty close to it. "My" Heron was old and craggy looking, not sleek and smooth like the one you photographed. It really looked like a dinosaur.

Suddenly it was gone. I was afraid that it had died, but then I saw an item in the paper about a Great Blue Heron that was dehydrated (it was during a period of drought) and was taken somewhere for some kind of treatment.

A few weeks later I thought I say "my" Heron about 30 miles north of my town. I told a birdwatching friend about it, and she informed me that there are lots and lots of Great Blue Herons in our area.

Silly me. I still think its the most special kind of bird. And I still think it was "my" Heron that I saw.

Suze said...

Susan, these were more than just lucky shots-- absolutely artful.

How wonderful that you set out on your walk determined to allow something other to dictate the experience and that the something other led you straight into the heart of serendipity-- where you were prepared with your camera at the ready.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
These are really splendid pictures which just go to show that patience is rewarded. We should have so enjoyed being with you and seeing all this for ourselves and would, we assure you, have kept quiet too!!

David said...

Just keep those birdshots coming - you know how much we love them. We're lucky with our herons on the Thames and by the Serpentine - there they stand, solitary, every hundred yards or so.

Natural life is returning to the old father - until a summer storm drives out all the sewage into the flow, and then it takes some time to recover. We even had a whale up near Waterloo two years ago which was driven happily back out to sea.

Anonymous said...

Lucky shot indeed. We get herons from time to time around the pond. The shot you took is not one that we would relish since it is our fish that become a pupu. Nonetheless, your blog and bird shots belong in National Geographic.

John said...

Hi Susan,
I was always told that you make your own luck and with all that waiting you certainly made yours! Fantastic final shot! Great to see the Cedar Waxwing too, you are very fortunate to have these great birds as `common`.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Lucky, right. As lucky as your heron's meal. I have a similar mixture of feelings when I go for a walk in a park/nature preserve - an intrusive clumsy human blundering interrupting the peace. But the other humans are so much more annoying!

I should post some snapshots of Florida birds for you sometime. They're not nearly as good as yours, but you might like to see them. I love the majestic snowy egrets that land almost anywhere in the city - in a parking lot, even on somebody's run-down front porch. And pelicans in flight are just amazing. The birds really make Florida - don't think I'd want to live here if they weren't here.

Mark Kerstetter said...

oops, I meant to say the great white heron - egrets are generally found at the beach with the roseate spoonbills!

cybersr said...

Love the post! What a super collection of GB Heron moods; and the Cedar Waxwing shot, too, is worthy of a place in a calendar.

Great Blues also eat snakes. If you are ever interrupted by a persistently inquisitive stroller, you might want to describe how the bird gulps the wriggling snake down a few inches at a time. That will send them on their way.

You probably have already observed a Great Blue eating a fish. It tosses it into position to swallow the fish head first so the scales do not scrape the bird's throat on the way down. After the fish is swallowed the GB will take a swig of water to rinse its gullet.

I'd say that despite your late start, the day at Innisfree was a huge success.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. lovely post .. people always set to interrupt, birds always set to fly off .. and yet you set your ground and achieved some wonderful photos .. great shots and that fish looks good enough for lunch! Now what sort is that???!!! Cheers Hilary

Friko said...

"Hell is other people".
Drat their stupid faces!

I am glad you got several decent shots in spite of stupid people asking stupid questions.

One of those lovely co-incidences: We had a poetry evening last night, the subject being holidays and holy days and one of the others brought Yeat's "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.."

Maggie Asfahani Hajj said...

Ah, Friko has taken my comment! I immediately thought of that poem, it is one of my very favorites.

Beautiful photos!

klahanie said...

Greetings Susan,
Having arrived rather late in the proceedings, all I can really do is echo the fine comments of those above.
I just love seeing photos of nature and wildlife. Your wonderful photos capture the very essence of those beautiful birds in their natural habitat.
A highly informative and visually delightful posting. Thank you.
With respect and kind wishes, Gary

Susan Scheid said...

My responses are again in two parts, due to Blogger's character limits.

Shoreacres: Lovely to hear from you, and to read your own tale of the heron. I have not read Pilgrim, I am embarrassed to say. Yet another woeful gap in my reading that I should correct. The line "Sop often 'n' set frequent,” alone, is brilliant!

Elaine: Oh, indeed, I know what you mean about “my heron,” and I endorse your notion that it was your heron that you saw. Wonderful story, worth a post of its own!

Suze: What would we do without serendipity, eh?

Jane and Lance: Well that would be fun sometime! Makes me wonder, too, what sorts of birds one sees on the Danube??

David: How lucky you are to see so many herons. I had to ask the mate what the “old father” was, and of course it was the Thames! T’is good to have revival of the great rivers—the Hudson, too.

jms: Meaning in your own backyard, right? Yes, I would think herons do not do well with a fishpond in which you’re trying to keep the fish alive!

John: Of course, I had to laugh at myself about your comment on the waxwings—as when I look at your fine birding blog, I wish, wish, wish we had the assortment of birds that you have there!

Mark: Oh, I hope you will post Florida birds sometime. I’ve not seen a great white heron, or a pelican, for that matter! The roseate spoonbills, I saw only once, in Louisiana. All such magnificent birds. I can see why you say “The birds really make Florida - don't think I'd want to live here if they weren't here”—though would I be right that this doesn’t extend to the mockingbird (which we also get here). Postscript: Here’s something interesting I just found on Cornell’s “All about birds” site, under the heading of “Great Blue Heron”: “An all white form is found from southern Florida into the Caribbean, and used to be considered a separate species, the ‘Great White Heron.’” Perhaps we’re seeing different versions of the same bird!

Susan Scheid said...

cybersr: An entertaining and informative addition to the post. I have seen the swig of water and know about the scales, though that I didn’t manage to catch this time out. As for the snakes—I will definitely have to use that in response to the next question of that sort!

Hilary: Interesting question—now, I suspect, turning the tables, that one of the passers-by might have known that. Lots of fishermen around these parts. Must bear that in mind!

Friko: Ah, well, of course, I’m an intruder, too, but that doesn’t seem to stop my irritation with interruptions from passers-by!

I do love that sort of coincidence, and that Yeats poem is a beauty, isn’t it? The garden is indeed named after the poem (the quote below is from a New York Times article on the garden, “In the Garden of Yin, Yang and Yeats,” by Ellen McGuire, July 1, 2005):

"Innisfree Garden, 75 years old, is named for a poem by William Butler Yeats, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree,' that used imagery of an island in Lough Gill in Ireland.

"The garden was created painstakingly over 20 years by the late Walter Beck, an American painter inspired by the work of Wang Wei, an eighth-century Chinese artist. Mr. Beck originated the term cup garden for the three-dimensional asymmetrical images he composed of rocks, streams, plants and flowers of varying sizes and shapes around his 40-acre natural lake."

In the category of more than anyone probably wants to know, the New York Times article (it has a great description of the garden) refers to the gray heron. From authority far more knowledgeable than I am, I can advise that the gray heron is not to be found on this side of the Atlantic, unless it has strayed very far off course. I think this error has somehow crept into Innisfree’s lore, as I’ve heard it before.

Maggie: A beautiful poem, absolutely! For those who may not know it, here it is:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Gary: It is never too late to offer such a nice comment—particularly given my track record for inability to keep up with everyone. I’m pleased indeed that you had a chance to stop by and enjoyed the post!

lucychili said...

beautiful bird

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