Birding Column: Stalking a Great Blue Heron

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
July 6, 2004

For a couple of days in late January, I took it upon myself to chase after a great blue heron in the meadow at Malibu Creek State Park. This bird is a majestic creature, and as long as I stayed about 100 feet (30 meters) away from him, he tolerated my watching him forage about in the meadow.

When foraging, the great blue heron remains virtually motionless as he scans the ground for prey from his great height. I wasn't sure what this particular heron was looking for, but I enjoyed watching him stalk his prey patiently and methodically. Sometimes he would look over in my direction just to check me out more carefully.

Now, the great blue heron will tolerate your presence up to a point, but when he feels that you have been bugging him a little bit too much, he'll walk or hop away from you, increasing his speed the closer you get. But at least you're still in the picture.

When he really decides to reject you is when he flies off across the entire meadow and starts foraging again, as if nothing has happened. Meanwhile, you have to lug your heavy camera equipment across uneven ground that's littered with gopher holes in order to get anywhere near him again—and you know (and I think he does too) that as soon as you get within range of him to take a good photograph, he's liable to pick himself right up again and fly right back to that section of the meadow that you just left in order to track him down.

By this time, your tripod has become so heavy on your arm that you're just about ready to pack it in—but the lure of getting one more shot of this beautiful bird's head is too great, and you creep forward a few more paces and sneak out from behind a bush to get a clear view of your subject without flushing him.

He stares back at you from a hundred feet away, but you can see by looking through the viewfinder that the black plume that comes out of the back of his head actually separates into little branches, ending in a forked tip. What's the purpose of this, you wonder. Merely for decoration? You also notice the red patch on the upper bill and the keen, yellow eye with a black pupil, staring back at you.

Afterward, you do some research on the great blue heron, and you discover that in addition to stalking frogs, insects, and snakes in the meadow, the heron has been searching for gophers (hence the gopher holes).

I can't imagine how a great blue heron kills a gopher. Does he skewer it with his bill, or does he grab it by the neck and choke it to death, or does he swallow it whole, like a fish?

It turns out that the staff at the park had given this great blue heron a name—George. At a certain point, I realized that I was annoying George more than I should, and although I enjoyed watching him do his thing, I decided to give him his space back, and so I left to pursue other adventures with other birds.

Approaching a Great Blue Heron

My experience with the great blue heron brings to light an interesting dilemma. When observing birds (or any wildlife, for that matter), how much of their normal routine can you justify disturbing? I would say none, and that any intrusion into their lives by humans could affect their ability to survive. And if carried to its ultimate extreme, human intrusion could affect the animals' entire species—and has.

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