At Water’s Edge: Great Blue Herons

Lately I’ve been visiting nearby wetlands in the morning, before chores (prior to getting serious about photography, I worked in the cool of the morning – much smarter, but also much less interesting!). I’ve had some good sightings which I must share via several posts.

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Bullfrog on lily pad

Yesterday was my third visit to a tiny pond bordered by a cattail marsh to observe and photograph a family of Moorhens. Sitting in muck at water’s edge, partially concealed by vegetation, I was immersed in the moment and unaware of what was going on beyond the viewfinder. At some point I lowered the camera to look around and discovered a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) perched atop a snag, 50 or 60 meters in front of me. I took some portrait shots (labeled bird #1), then captured a breath-taking sequence that I have presented in a gallery.

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

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Great Blue Heron, adult (bird #1)

While intensely focused on the perched heron, my viewfinder was suddenly and unexpectedly filled with a large bird with huge, dark wings. Because of my limited field of view, I had no idea what was happening as I pulled the trigger. The event was over in three seconds. Only when the mystery bird flew to a nearby perch did I realize that it too was a Great Blue Heron, an immature bird (bird #2).

The gallery shows the the arrival and departure of the immature heron, the response of the perched adult, and the immature bird pausing briefly on a nearby snag before leaving.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Winter Wetlands… and Wonderlands

My winter bucket list for outdoor photography includes eagles, grouse, pileated woodpeckers and wetland landscapes. Frigid temperatures and six inches of new, powdery snow led me to wonder if grouse would be roosting on the ground, under an insulating blanket of snow. My beagle flushed a bird from under the snow, no more than six feet from my feet, while he was being leash-walked, suggesting that I had the right idea. I then searched for hours, over a two-day period, and found nothing! The odds really weren’t in my favor: I only knew of just two pairs in my search area of about 75 acres, and the new snow wasn’t that deep (eight to ten inches or more would have been better).

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A ruffed grouse snow roost site, showing entrance and exit holes

Wetlands rarely disappoint and when all else fails, that’s often where I end up. In winter, swamps, marshy areas and small streams have rich landscapes and animal diversity, are bug free, and are much more accessible on foot than at other times. Once open water and muck freeze, and dense, herbaceous vegetation dies back, many wetland mysteries are unveiled. (I won’t lie – I wear 18 inch rubber boots on these excursions, regardless of the season; in the big swamps, I carry a compass and cell phone too).

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Clumps of ferns in a marsh habitat

A Cattail Marsh after Heavy Snow

Cattail marsh

The large northern white-cedar swamps in central New York are natural resource treasures, with unique offerings of solitude and opportunities for reflection and exploration. Small areas of raised ground, no wider than the spread of the crown of a tree, are often occupied by white pine trees. The larger specimens, two and a half to three feet in diameter and towering far above the northern white-cedar and its associates, are centuries old (some nearly 500 years old).

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Towering, old white pine, over 30 inches in diameter

Cedar of all sizes, shapes and forms is everywhere. In sharp contrast to the open woods and snow-covered fields on adjacent, upland habitats, these dense tangles of aromatic green foliage and persistent, gnarly branches are a wildlife haven. Snowshoe hares (historically), furbearers, ruffed grouse and deer all use cedar thickets for food and/or cover. Cedar is a highly nutritious (over 25% carbs), preferred food of deer, as seen by a browse line of about five to seven feet above ground if deer have access to it in winter.

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Whitetail deer feeding on northern white-cedar

All photos by NB Hunter