Welcome to my 2018 Twelve Days of Photos, where I look at one of the images I chose to include in my best of year selection and talk a bit about it. To see the entire list of images I chose and learn more about my year in photography, please check out my 2018 Best Photos of the Year post. You can also look at all of the images over on my Smugmug Portfolio Site, and I’ve embedded a slideshow at the end of this post. To see a larger version of the image, you can click on it.
For this trip I’m back in Orange County again and back at San Joaquin reserve in Irvine again, the last trip south for a while, since this is the trip where we’re putting my sister to rest and saying goodbye. So of course a snuck out for a sanity walk and took the camera with me.
This is one of those really crazy pictures that has a lot more story than is obvious from the image itself. At San Joaquin I took the path out to one of the ponds where a flock of Western Grebes was hanging out, and they were starting to show some of the preliminary actions indicating they were gearing up for pairing off for the upcoming mating season. It was too early to expect any of the forming pairs to dance, but there was some very distinct and interesting behavior including leg waggling and synchronize or mimicked movement. If you’ve never seen the dance of the grebes, it’s one of those truly amazing activities of nature — and until you see it in person, the BBC has a rather nice video of what you’re missing.
So to watch the grebes I found a bench and sat down and settled in for a while. After a few minutes, I heard the sound of wings near me, and suddenly this Great Blue Heron flies in and lands in the water at the edge, no more than 15 feet away, partially obscured by some brush. It clearly didn’t see me sitting there as it came in for a landing.
And… then it did see me. And it did what birds will do in that situation, it got really stiff and still and it watched me really closely, trying to figure out if I was a threat. I was way within it’s threat radius, and often, birds will simply fly away again, but I was also close enough it seemed like it wasn’t sure it could get in the air before I grabbed it, so the bird goes really still (no movement, maybe not see it?) and watching for any sign of trouble.
For my part, I tried really hard not to look threatening or do anything that might startle it. After a minute or so it seemed to decide I wasn’t an immediate threat, so it started moving around a bit, but still keeping one eye on me. I tried to act like I wasn’t interested in it, and in fact shifted to point away from it a bit. It eventually settled down and went about its business, which was fishing, but it still was looking at me on a regular basis for any change.
It turns out I had plopped down near a favorite fishing spot. At that point it was shallow, the surface of the water was shaded, so there was solid shoreline to stand on, and the share reduces glare so it’s easier for the bird to see fish swim by, and harder for the fish to see the bird standing over them. It got two while I was watching, both 3-6″ long.
I started trying to take pictures of the bird through the brush, trying to get a good, clear shot without visual clutter. This was by far my favorite of those, and what it’s doing at that point is staring right at me and taking a good look at me, with that one eye pointed at me.
Ultimately it finally got more serious about the fishing and slid down behind the brush and stopped staring at me, and I took that opportunity to shift further away to another bench and get far enough away that I stopped being a potential threat, so it could focus on feeding and not me.
Why worry so much about the bird and trying to prevent making it fly? Well, for one, I’m intruding on it, even if I was there first. That’s not my pond, it’s the birds, and I want to respect them. But on a practical basis, the most energy-expending activity a bird does: taking its body from rest to flight eats more calories than anything else a bird does. Forcing birds to take flight and flee eats a lot of energy, and it’s not always energy that can spare, especially with migrating birds preparing for the flight to winter or summer quarters, so I try to be sensitive to that and not stress birds into fleeing.
Making that Heron fly from me would have kept it from its fishing hole and prevent it from getting lunch, and cost it needed energy in the flight away from me. If the bird sees me as a threat and leaves in a hurry, it might also not be looking as closely at other possible threats, which leaves it vulnerable to some other predator taking it as it’s fleeing me. This is unfortunately something we hear stories about a few times a year where birders find a rare bird and in the enthusiasm for getting a good look, mob it and cause it to flee repeatedly until it’s exhausted, at which point there’s normally a sad email sent out to the birding lists saying not to bother looking for the bird, because a hawk or coyote is now eating it.
I never want to be that birder. The bird’s well-being and health is a lot more important than a photo or a tick off my life list. I personally have a hard rule that if I’m looking at a bird and flush it twice, I leave, because I’m now stressing it unnecessarily, and I wish more birders thought of this and honored the birds needs and not just their own.
Fortunately, this Heron and I were able to find a way to work it out, and I got my photos, and it got its fish. That made both of us happy.