January 28, 2021 ~ We all know and love the beautiful white herons wading in the water. With their long elegant necks and floating plumes, they are the picture of grace (unless they are arguing – Snowies, I’ve got my eye on you!). But I’m always charmed and delighted by the colored herons. They are much harder to spot due to their shyness and protective coloration, and it is always a treat to see them. In the space of 7 days, I got to see two different species!
In mid-January, I visited Brazos Bend State Park on a cold sunny afternoon. It was late in the day, and the long shadows from the oak trees cast deep shade along the western edge of 40-Acre Lake. I had my head up, looking for hawks, when something fluttered away from my feet. I had startled a Green Heron from the tall grass at the edge of the water. These are among the shyest of the herons, and their patchy colors help them camouflage even in minimal cover.
He kept hunting right at the water’s edge, staying just in front of me as I slowly walked. Finally, he dodged and struck prey with his long neck extended, and then he raised his crest! I was amazed; I’d never seen a display this pronounced. Clearly, he was agitated at my presence, so I backed off as he marched off stiff-legged and disappeared into the reeds, crest waving in the breeze.
Seven days later, I was back at the park, and found an American Bittern, hiding in plain sight. I was sure that the bit of greenery on the left edge of the photo was a sturdy green reed, not yet nipped by the occasional nighttime frosts, but that is the Bittern’s leg, complete with long toes and sharp nails for stalking slowly across the tangled marsh foliage.
He was following a shallow depression, that was completely covered by water plants. You can see the drips falling from his foot as he crept along, picking little morsels from the water. They appeared to be small fish about an inch and a half long, but I never got a clear shot of his catch.
At one point, he grabbed his prey, but when he pulled his head back, a clinging succulent weed was stuck to his bill. He opened and shut his bill several times perhaps trying to dislodge the weed. The way he kept working it even made me wonder if he was harvesting small snails from the weed stem. You can see that his nictating membrane (the transparent third eyelid that protects the bird’s eye from sharp sticks and reeds) is partially closed.
I love the detail in his feathers. Here he was grunting or honking softly, just letting everyone know this was his patch. Please pardon the fuzzy tan weed in the foreground. This shot was cropped with a long-and-narrow format in order to eliminate as much of the distracting winter mulch as possible… but it is just a reality of life in the marsh.
From my few observations, the hunting posture of these two herons is quite different. The Green Heron typically crouches, neck completely folded and waits to strike using the power of his neck and shoulder muscles, while the Bittern typically stands with neck stretched out, one foot far in front of the other, lunging with the muscles of his legs when he spots his prey.
Judging the relative size of birds from these photos is difficult… each bird appears to be “as big as your screen”. The Green Heron is 16” to 18” long, and weighs about 8.5 oz. The American Bittern is almost twice as big, 23” to 33” long, and weighing 13 to 17 oz. The Green Heron is here all year round, while the Bittern is typically only here for the winter, migrating to the northern US and Canada for the breeding season, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of each of them over the next few months.
P.S. ~ Now, about that intruding bit of out-of-focus marsh grass… I’m told that Photoshop could help me with that. Post-processing (tweaking and adjusting photos to improve the photo) is an art form with which I have barely become acquainted. I’ll post a photo story about my teeny-tiny experiences with post-processing in the near future.