Magazine article Natural History

Fishing for a Living

Magazine article Natural History

Fishing for a Living

Article excerpt

I'd been observing the birds in a heron rookery on a beaver pond near my home for more than two decades, before I finally saw a great blue heron catch a fish-three fishes and a frog, to be precise.

True, I hadn't tried terribly hard to witness the heron's fabled hunting prowess. My patience, I'd assumed, would be no match for its reputed ability to stand motionless for long periods, waiting for the right moment to strike. I was wrong: my heron, at least, was no statue.

The heron that changed my mind was standing in full view in the middle of the pond one day, the water just clearing the tops of its legs. The feathers on its underbelly lightly brushed the lily pads on the surface. I decided to wait and watch. I settled in on the shoreline, my back against a boulder, and positioned my binoculars.

Far from motionless, this heron was positively fidgety. It moved its head backward, forward, and side to side. It stretched its neck high and then abruptly lowered it; at times it rested its neck in a loose S curve. Occasionally the heron swallowed, as if exercising its throat muscles in anticipation. Every so often it opened its beak and shook its head vigorously, as if trying to dislodge a bad-tasting morsel.

While I ruminated on the significance of these gestures, the heron abruptly turned its head to look over its left shoulder. Then, without turning its body, it plunged its long sharp beak into the water so swiftly that the eye could barely follow-and plucked out a frog. It raised its head high, tossed back the frog, and swallowed.

After an interlude of more restless fussing, the heron drew its neck into a tight S, then thrust it forward, shot its beak into the water, and withdrew a shiny black fish. This catch proved a lot trickier to handle than the frog. The heron solved the problem by pitching its head back three or four times and quickly opening its beak each time, just enough to keep hold of the fish while positioning it more accurately for swallowing. …

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