Wind. Gusts that tossed me about, sent me tumbling, had me bracing against nearby objects just to take photos. Blowing from the south, the north shore of White Rock Lake offered the least hospitable place to wander.
So I turned south and headed back along the eastern shore toward the Bathhouse Cultural Center and water theater.
As I passed one of the docks where sailboats moored safely in the white-capped water, I spied a great egret (Ardea alba) standing amongst the reeds. Its stance told me it was hunting.
Approaching slowly to find a good view of it, I made a point of keeping a large tree between me and the bird’s position. I felt that made me less of a threat, less of a distraction, and the massive wooden trunk undoubtedly could provide anchorage for me against the relentless winds. I would need it if I wanted to stand still long enough to focus and shoot.
Its position on the shore opposite the egret’s location also seemed a natural blind, one that could get me close enough for some respectable pictures.
My site reached, I prepped the camera settings for the shot. The bird never moved save the occasional turn of the head as it watched for a fish to wander into range.
I set the camera for nearby objects, color balanced for the bright white against a drab brown backdrop of dried reeds, modified the light intake for the nearby trees whose shadows bathed the entire area and protected it from cool morning sunshine, then stepped slowly to the side where I could peer around the tree while steadying myself against it.
A massive blue form grew to colossal size right in front of me. Had I taken a single step forward, I could have reached out and touched the behemoth as it transformed from something stoic and unseen to something gargantuan and alive.
Unbeknownst to me, a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had been standing behind that very same tree opposite my approach. I had not seen it because it never moved from its shielded spot behind the same obstacle I had used to conceal my advance.
We undoubtedly frightened each other with equal severity.
I stumbled backward as one wing came within a breath of my face, and I nearly fell to the ground as gusts of invisible force punched me in the chest as I scrambled for sure footing.
After no more than a second or two when I regained some composure, I turned and caught only a few images of the retreating giant as it flew in a low arc over the water’s surface, passing briefly in front of the pier and sailboats on its way around the small peninsula—and eventually behind the reeds and trees, its escape taking it further away toward the opposite shore.
That one photo remains as proof of the encounter, the only one presentable due to being unready for the experience.
But what an encounter.
If you’ve never seen a great blue heron in person, you can’t possibly realize how large they are. Their wingspan can reach six feet (71 in or 180 cm) and their length from head to tail ranges from three feet (36 in or 91 cm) to almost five feet (54 in or 137 cm).
Given my close encounter, I suspect the one I surprised erred on the large end of the scale. It easily could have been as tall as I am had it stood erect on stiff legs with its neck fully extended.
I felt inebriated by the moment, by the nearness of such a massive yet graceful creature, one who easily took flight with almost slow flaps of its wings. As it soared out over the lake, I became lost in the vision of it.
About a week later, I again found myself in the presence of this species, only then it was from a great distance with a good deal of winter limbs betwixt our positions.
I walked along the north bank of Dixon Branch. The creek is surrounded by dense woodlands and provides habitat and home for many creatures.
The afternoon sun already beat down upon me, leaving me tired of the jacket I wore and wishing I had left it at home. Yet I dared not turn back for too much life teemed about me, all of it begging to be seen, to be appreciated.
Without any sound at all, a huge shadow danced over me and toward the opposite bank.
It was a great blue heron. Effortlessly as though made of air, it glided through the treetops and perched upon a large limb deep within the tree line.
I scrambled through thicket and brush trying to find a location with as few branches between me and the bird, someplace where I could get a semi-clear view of it.
The unkempt nature of its feathers became clear despite the obstructions. They danced in the breeze even as this avian beauty stood in complete calm, its head slowly turning this way and that, taking in the view from its high rest.
Knowing I could not get a clear view, I snapped several pictures before putting the camera down so I could just stand in silence and observe.
It took several moments for me to realize it too was watching. Watching me.
Being the only possible threat in the immediate area, and certainly the only creature to take notice of it, the heron casually glanced about in a graceful survey of the surroundings, pausing with each sweep of its head to look at me, to take in my presence much as I was doing with it.