Surprising me from the same shadowy, shielded, shrouded bend in one of the creeks leading to Sunset Bay, the banks of which I often walk during visits to White Rock Lake, two different species of heron gifted me with brief encounters before dashing away in response to my sudden arrival.
I discovered both on two separate days yet in the same location, a spot cloaked by verdant foliage concealing a plethora of perches for such creatures. My clumsy stumbling through the trees sent both avians into immediate escape and proffered me only the briefest of opportunities to capture the moments.
Serenely stoic within a spot of shade, this green heron (Butorides virescens) wisely stood its ground without moving as I first approached. Truth be told, I walked toward the bank of the creek without realizing the bird likewise kept an eye on me.
Most vertebrates with which I have had encounters appear fully capable of knowing when stillness is called for, something tendered evidently and conspicuously in those times when they realize they have not yet been spotted—or at least are not being watched directly. Walk by without meeting their gaze and they are more likely to stand their ground, to remain motionless until you pass, and that even if you are passing within a breath of their position. This is true even if you stop moving.
Yet set your eyes upon them and they will respond. What innate awareness of covert calm when necessary, and what immediate enactment of essential evasion when circumstances warrant. These are gifts we humans too often fail to fully comprehend and appreciate.
My path took me quite near the heron as it stood upon a fallen tree that bridged the creek from shore to shore. I stopped beneath a pair of trees before turning toward its position. That’s when I spied it.
The time it took for the bird to know the game was up can be measured in the time it took me to press the button on the camera. It immediately turned and hopped across several branches, the crest on its head rising to full staff just before the creature took to wings and disappeared into the dense woodlands opposite my position.
Since then I have made it a point of trying to remain visibly unaware and uninterested in wildlife as I attempt to photograph it. This does not always work well—or at all. I find indirect photography a far more challenging proposition than is its direct counterpart. Let’s face it: Often it’s quite necessary to actually look at what you’re trying to digitally capture.
Another challenge with unplanned nature photography stems from not always being prepared for the moment. As I generally venture out with no predefined plans as to what I am looking for or where I am going, preparing the camera for these unexpected shots is impossible. Whether the wrong settings, the wrong lens or the wrong filters, or a combination of the three, sometimes it’s necessary to ignore the mental instruction to fiddle with the camera first before taking a photo. It’s a point-and-shoot world, I’m afraid, and that means I can’t always memorialize the experience with the quality I would prefer.
Days later but in the exact same spot, this yellow-crowned night-heron (Nyctanassa violacea) never flinched as I walked by. My feet traced the very edge of the creek’s bank as I attempted nonchalance for the bird’s sake. I slowed, fiddled with the camera a bit as I watched it peripherally, then stopped, turned, focused and took the picture in one quick fluid motion.
Both herons immediately took flight and vanished into the confluence.
Unbeknownst to me, two yellow-crowned night-herons had been perched there, the one I could see and another expertly hidden amongst branches so full of greenery as to offer impenetrable armor against prying eyes. However, the second avian enjoyed a hiding place much closer to my position than the one I could see. It behooved the winged beauty to flee with its friend lest my sudden halt and interest mean more than snapping a photo.
I watched the two of them fly low over the water before making a graceful turn up and into the trees. It was then a third of their kind dove down from the branches a stone’s throw from my location and made a sweeping move to follow the first two, its raspy call filling the air perhaps as a warning to others.
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A note on the last photo:
Visible behind the heron is a fishing bobber held in the trees by a frightening amount of tangled line. I find it disconcerting and deplorable. Such hazards pose significant threats to the wildlife in the area.
So much human garbage and debris wind up in the lake. Although I never have found the heart to photograph and share images of the carnage it leaves behind, I would need many more hands if I were to count on my fingers the number of walks I’ve taken which yielded some horrific find, such as a raccoon dead at the water’s edge with fishing line wrapped around its feet, a baby duck still and lifeless with a broken bottle stabbed into its bosom, and a snapping turtle starved to death with a fisher’s hook fastening its jaws permanently closed. I could go on.
Truth be told, not a walk goes by when I don’t see more and more inhumanity measured in litter. All the death and suffering it causes here is nothing more than a microscopic example of the macroscopic terrors we unleash worldwide. Our species is brutish, heartless, troglodytic.