I Take It You Trust Me

A close-up of the feathers on the back of the head of a great blue heron, taken at Rest Lake in Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefield, Washington on January 1, 2011. Original: _MG_2103.cr2

One of the beauties of the auto tour was if you sat there quietly, sometimes the animals would walk right by the car. Or even stop beside you, as with this hunting heron scanning the marsh beyond. With its back to me, a gentle breeze tussled the feathers atop its head, showing off the white strip of feathers they grow as adults.

Herons Before Hedgehogs

A close-up of a juvenile great blue heron against a frosty backdrop, taken at Horse Lake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Ridgefiel, Washingon on January 1, 2011. Original: _MG_1684.cr2

New Year’s Day in 2011 dawned with frost covering the grasses around Horse Lake, where I met this juvenile heron beside the auto tour at Ridgefield. During the winter I brought extra coats to drape over my legs so I could sit in the cold and watch and listen to the wildlife around me. On this occasion though a string of running cars soon pulled up behind, including my arch-nemesis the diesel pickup truck with its bone rattling engine, so I started up the car and continued on. A few hours later as I prepared for another loop around I saw a long line of cars stretched into the distance and decided to call it a day. Which was wonderful in its own right as I took Ellie for an extra walk and then we played with her hedgehogs in the backyard before heading inside to snuggle up with the cats. Wildlife watching, playing with the pets, my little slice of heaven and a lovely start to the year.

A Choice of Waters

A great blue heron waits in a saltwater marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina

A great blue heron waits in a saltwater marsh at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. It’s a wonderful park that not only has ocean access and some short hiking trails but also a causeway that runs between saltwater and freshwater lagoons. There are walking paths on each side of the road so as a photographer you can choose your type of water, as can the herons and egrets that hunt here. Although my biggest surprise seeing predators move between the marshes came one day as I was photographing alligators in the freshwater marsh when a large alligator came walking across the road from the saltwater side, the first time I learned they could spend a bit of time in the saltwater before returning to their freshwater home. After that I watched my back a bit more closely, although I never even remotely had any problems with the large reptiles.

Predator v. Predator

A great blue heron pulls a large bullfrog out of the water

Bullfrogs are voracious predators and not native to the Northwest but they are also a food source for a variety of animals that have learned to eat them. This large bullfrog was I think killed by a family of otters that came through earlier, it looked like one of them had caught the frog and eaten its front legs and a bit near the back before leaving. The heron was happy to eat what the otters left, dunking the frog a couple of times in the water (birds like herons and bitterns do this at times with their prey when near water) before getting it positioned in its beak where it could swallow the frog whole.

A great blue heron holds a large bullfrog in its beak

A  great blue heron dunks a large bullfrog in the water

A great blue heron prepares to swallow a large bullfrog

Fish Heads, Fish Heads

A great blue heron holds a fish head in its beak

Great blue herons normally swallow their prey whole, I believe this fish head came courtesy of a family of river otters I had seen moving through shortly before. Although effective hunters themselves, I’ve seen herons shadow otters before to try for scraps from the on-the-move otters (and seen otters make feints towards the herons if they think they’re getting too close and might grab more than just leftovers).

Hunter in Green

A great blue heron hunts for voles in a sea of green grass

When I visited Ridgefield a week ago I decided to only shoot with the new Sony camera and the adapter that lets me attach my Canon telephotos. I was expecting to have to rely on manual focus but the autofocus did work sometimes, although not consistently enough for this to be a combination I’ll use often for photos. For these shots I used manual focus, although I was still learning how to do it. I’d normally like a little more depth of field in a shot like this, especially to keep more of the pouring rain in focus, but by shooting wide open I was able to take more of an abstract and turn the grass that surrounded the hunting heron into a sea of green.

With the heron standing tall, you get more of a sense of the large meadow it was hunting in. I had no idea herons hunted in meadows until I moved to the Northwest, but all the voles that live here are well aware.

I didn’t have time to take any 4K videos of this heron, it struck into the ground and walked off when it came up empty, but I did take a few videos of some animals sitting in the pouring rain, including a bald eagle, a white-tailed deer, and some snipe. I’ve never edited video but I’ll see if I can learn enough to put a few clips up in the next month or so.

A great blue heron stands in a meadow in the pouring rain

The Approaching Light

A great blue heron sits amongst frost and ice as the distant marsh is lit by the rising sun

A cold snap at the end of the year meant the new year dawned to frost and ice. I started New Year’s morning the way I had New Year’s Eve, watching egrets and herons at Ridgefield. I had arrived before the sun and had been sitting watching this heron when I was struck by how the rising sun was already illuminating the far side of the marsh. Within minutes it would crest the hill and bring us the warmth of its light as well.

As I watched the animals that morning I knew our sweet little cat Emma was in a fight for her life but I didn’t know we only had a week left together. And of course I couldn’t know that on this day, or perhaps a day or two before, a little kitten was being rescued far away in southern Oregon, and that a few weeks later she’d be transferred to Portland and welcomed into our home, bringing us light at the end of a dark and depressing month.