The Watchers In the Shadows

In the early 1980s, during another partial solar eclipse in Houston, the sight of crescent-shaped shadows beneath live oak trees enchanted me. The memory never faded, and I was eager to revisit the experience during this week’s eclipse.

As neighbors gathered, buckets of water, colanders, saltine crackers, and even Pringles potato chip cans worked perfectly well as viewing devices.

Still, the trees were my favorite.

Even on concrete, the little crescent moons they shed were well-defined.

When rising winds tumbled their branches, the shapes shifted in unpredictable ways. Here, a school of angel fish crosses their concrete reef.

Captivated by shadows on the ground, I hardly noticed the murmuring above my head until it grew louder and more insistent.

Scanning the branches, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Other watchers had awakened and had begun to stretch, scratch, and perhaps even think about fishing.

Green heron (Butorides virescens)
Black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Whether the herons felt the rising wind, sensed changes in the light, were attuned to the slight drop in temperature, or simply were curious about the humans below, they chattered and stirred until, as the moon moved away and the bright afternoon returned, they settled in again on their branches.

Tonight, the humans have gone, the slivered moon has set, and the herons are calling through the darkness. At first light, they will return to the trees and spend the day drowsing there among the branches. While their habits are less predictable than an eclipse, no glasses are needed to see them, and no years-long wait is required.


Comments always are welcome.

49 thoughts on “The Watchers In the Shadows

    1. Of all the things I didn’t expect to see, angel fish would top the list. But that’s what the bits of sunlight reminded me of, and the more I looked, the more I saw the resemblance.

      I’m so glad you’ve been able to see them. The Audubon site shows a breeding population in the southern half of your state, while they’re present but uncommon in the northern half. They’re the smallest North American heron, and funny birds. They sure can squawk when they’re disturbed.

  1. Lovely images of the herons.
    I have to admit I didn’t even think of the eclipse at all. I guess despite its rarity, I’m thinking more about the small things in my daily life.

    1. I hadn’t paid much attention to locations outside the U.S. where the eclipse could be seen. When I checked, I found that Australia didn’t get even a peek, so that probably explains why you didn’t think of it. It wasn’t something your media would have given attention to, except perhaps as a brief note.

      You will have a total lunar eclipse on January 31, 2018. A lunar eclipse is pretty and intriguing, too — and you don’t have to worry about burning your eyes.

      The herons made me laugh, with all their scratching. It was hard to get a clear shot of them among the branches, but I was happy with these.

  2. Your birds are fabulous. Wonderful clarity and detail! And I love the feather-clouds on the ground.

    You saw more than I did. I was in Toronto and the sun was blazing. Never seemed to even dim but a bellhop outside the Royal York let me look through his glasses so I did see the moon/sun/eclipse a bit for a second. But you’d never know without. But it was nice to see people all looking at the same thing, sharing their devices, etc. The one in 2024 will give us a greater visibility/coverage so maybe then. I should make it that long!

    1. “Feather clouds” is a wonderful description, Jeanie. Coincidentally, that second night heron has been doing a lot of preening, and I’ve been picking up feathers from under the tree every time I go to work. I have some nice ones in the glove box of the car — do you need any big, medium gray feathers for a project?

      It was fun that so many people were excited about it. Even the nursing home across the street from me had several residents outside for the big event. That was one group that used the bucket of water technique, since it was pretty easy for wheelchair bound people to see that. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

      I don’t know if it’s too soon to put in a request for clear weather in 2024, but I if I thought nagging would do any good, I might be willing to start.

  3. So funny. I was in Merritt Island on eclipse day and when I got back from the grocery store found myself admiring sparkling crescent shapes on the driveway. I was trying to figure out where they came from and looked up at the tree next to the driveway. Didn’t make sense but looked like your pictures. It was the right time and I can only wonder as I hadn’t noticed those crescent sparkly lights before. I even wondered if it was something with my multi-focal lenses. LOL!! The afternoon did have an odd light to it for awhile.

    Your title Watcher in the Shadows gave me goosebumps at first….I thought of Lovecraft/Derleth’s Lurker at the Threshold….funny how titles will bring on others. So moody and all!!

    1. Your experience with the shapes on your driveway reminds me of the first time I saw them in the early 80s. I had walked outside to see what was happening, and when I looked down at the sidewalk, there they were. At the time, I didn’t realize they were a result of the eclipse; someone had to explain it to me. Aren’t you glad it was nature, and not your lenses?

      The title really was nothing more than a way to give the herons equal billing. It was remarkable to see so many birds in a single tree. I found two green herons, and five black crowned night herons. I think the night herons were two adults and three young ones, but I couldn’t see all of them well enough to tell. It amazes me that you can get the kinds of photos you do. Perhaps the rookeries and such have a little more clear space. A live oak can have quite a dense canopy, particularly when we’ve had enough rain to keep things green and growing.

  4. Love those crescent shapes on the concrete! I captured some crescent shapes of my own (pretty amazing since we’d had a thunderstorm roll through just before the big show was to start). And your birds are magnificent. I’m sure they feel the atmospheric changes. I know Dallas seemed antsy and stuck closer than usual to my side until everything blew over.

    1. There wasn’t a great deal of change here, but there was enough to be noticed. The temperature dropped by two degrees, and the quality of light changed. It was almost like a layer of cirrus clouds had moved in. What surprised me most was the wind. Just about ten minutes before totality — or maybe a little more — the wind changed direction in an instant, and increased a good bit. It was like a door had blown open. I wonder who came in?

      Dixie Rose didn’t do much except roll from one side to the other and go back to sleep. But today? She clearly can feel something: probably a chance in atmospheric pressure. Instead of settling down for her morning, noon, and afternoon naps, she’s been running around the house at full tilt, and yowling continually. Whether it’s the hurricane I can’t say, but I’d be willing to entertain the notion.

      1. I’m surprised you didn’t head for the hills! Harvey looks to be a wicked storm, with all that wind, rain, and storm surge. Stay safe, both you and Dixie Rose!

    1. Aren’t they lovely birds? In the first photo of the night heron, you can see the little white feather sticking up on its head that’s shared by male and female during breeding season. I’ve never seen the ragged fluff around the bill before, and need to find out if that’s a regular feature.

      As for what they thought about the eclipse, I can’t say — they weren’t telling. But they certainly were paying attention to what was happening around them.

  5. Linda, in just seven short years we’ll have a Texas eclipse where the line of totality crosses from south to north. It should be a good show for all of us who didn’t want to cross the country to see the show.

    1. I’m looking forward to it, too. I laughed at the media folks who kept saying this one was a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. I suppose it depends on whose lifetime you’re talking about, but I plan on being around.

      Now, as a friend say, it’s time to put away the eclipse glasses and get out the hurricane glasses. I suppose we’ll see what we will see — stay safe.

  6. “As neighbors gathered, buckets of water, colanders, saltine crackers, and even Pringles potato chip cans worked perfectly well as viewing devices”.

    I have thought deep about the above statement, but remain bewildered. I can only think that somehow those items were used to study the eclipse. But, a bucket of water?

    I think the herons had it all worked out, Linda. I think they could show us to remain earth-bound, not to worry and forget the Pringle cans.

    1. A bucket of water’s a fine way to watch, Gerard. My mother used the technique when she was young. Today, there even are YouTube videos showing you how to do it. The intructions are pretty basic: get a bucket, fill it with water, watch the reflection. I loved the saltine cracker approach. Sometimes it’s necessary to open up some of the holes with a pin, but it works just fine. See?

      The best part of using a Pringles can, of course, is helping to empty it — preferably with a nice drink in hand.

  7. The spaces between the tree leaves work like pinhole cameras to view the eclipse. Those first two pictures are eerily fascinating. The next two are amazing and beautiful. All four would make fascinating prints. I love the herons. But I have to say I love the egrets more. On my way to my mother’s to view the eclipse (Monday would have been my dad’s 95th birthday) I saw a snowy egret in the playa lake down the block from her house posed elegantly against the poplars at the edge of the lake. Of course, I didn’t have my camera with me.

    We had cloud cover for most of the eclipse, but after “totality” (or as total as we got where we were) there was a break in the clouds and we got to see it. (We also saw the total eclipse on TV — !)

    1. It was funny how many people stopped to say things like, “Aren’t you supposed to be looking up and not down?” When I explained some of them actually stopped to look, and were as delighted as I was.
      For several days, I couldn’t figure out why the first two photos seemed so familiar. Finally, it came to me. They remind me of the shadows the bare maple branches would cast on the windows of my parents’ bedroom during a winter storm.

      I’m glad you got at least some break in the clouds. A friend in Charleston, SC, was ecstatic over her experience of totality. I hope we’re able to see the next one.

      Like you, I think the egrets are beautiful, but I’ve developed a real affection for the night herons, partly because they sit on the boat lines outside my place to fish. During seasons when the windows can be open, their calls fill the night.

  8. A terrific post, Linda – you and I were on the same wavelength with the crescents! I love your soft tree outlines – so interesting. And the herons – wow, those are terrific photos!
    I see you haven’t replied to comments yet and can only surmise that you’re busy either evacuation or getting ready for Harvey. I’m thinking of you! Take care. I hope it all works out OK.

    1. i saw your post, and was impressed with the way the various backgrounds shaped the images. I wasn’t quite as prepared as you were; having a smooth background available might have made the tree photos, especially, more interesting. On the other hand, the blurred outlines have their own charm, and the angel fish delighted me.

      You were exactly right. The past couple of days have been extraordinarily busy with everything from boat-securing to decision-making about evacuation. I decided to stay put, even after seeing the reports this morning of a second landfall in the Houston area. I guess I’ll find out if it was the right decision.

        1. Oh ~ I’m near Galveston Bay, halfway between Houston and Galveston. See the little red star? That’s my location, more or less. It’s a place at significant risk for flooding and storm surge, but I’m on the third floor, and Ike’s surge didn’t reach the first floor of our buildings, so I’m fairly confident waters won’t be an issue.

          Here’s an interesting tidbit. The harbor/marina I live next to used to be the hurricane hole for the shrimp fleet years and years ago, before the developers moved in and turned it into what it is today. Even though it’s so far up into Clear Lake, there are boaters who choose to moor here because it does seem to be very secure. As for ships, so for residents, methinks. Well, at least mehopes.

          1. I was trying to remember where you were. OK well they say cat 4 now but evacuation is a bear I imagine. We have all sorts of stuff at the ready for a major earthquake, which is overdue. Every time I think of what it would be like to live out of that suitcase, with no elec. And not being able to use roads, probably limited cell service eyc. I just go blank. Take care!

  9. I really liked seeing the herons and you didn’t even need to go far to view them. Must have been exciting to see the various moon shapes. I did not attempt to watch the eclipse. I merely continued with my chores and did not look skyward since I had no viewing device. I noted that the sunlight was much dimmer and things seemed to be shadowed.

    1. It was nice to find the herons in the trees. I often see the green herons around the docks during the day, but the night herons are a little more elusive. Now that I’ve heard them “talking” to one another in the trees, I may be able to find them more often. It’s a much different sound than their usual alarm calls, which can’t help but get your attention.

      Next time, you should try the bucket of water, or one of the other low-tech ways of seeing it. On the other hand, the next total solar eclipse looks like it’s going to cross right over you,, so order those eclipse glasses early!

      1. Linda. I hope and pray that you are and will be safe. I learned that Harvey had been up-graded to cat-4 and a great deal of rain is expected. If you stayed, I hope that where you live is not low lying and that your vehicle will not be flooded. I know you live in an upstairs apartment so there is no danger of your home being flooded, I don’t think.

  10. I think if you were a bird or a mammal, the eclipse would be quite confusing. “Darn, I haven’t even had lunch and it is already getting dark.” And imagine the impact on early people. Great photos, Linda. On another note, I am thinking about you in light of the hurricane threat. Take care, my friend. –Curt

    1. That’s an amusing thought, Curt. It will be fun to see how the birds and animals react during a total eclipse. I had a sense that they noticed our partial, but only in the sense that we humans did: with a sudden bit of gratefulness that it had cooled off.

      One aspect of preparing for the storm has been surprising and delightful. I’ve never seen so many smiling, polite people. In the utterly packed grocery stores or at the gas stations, I’ve not seen a bit of grinchiness. I’m sure it’s there, but there’s something about a real threat that evokes a different response that the “imagined” threats that some like to promote.

      I’m sticking right here. If it was a long-track storm with a chance of hitting category 4 or 5, I’d be long gone. But flooding and storm surge aren’t as much of a threat for me, so it’s worth foregoing the pains of an evaculation. We’ll see what happens.

      1. Good luck, Linda. I see they are calling it a Category 4. My thoughts will be with you this week as I make my way through Burning Man. Peggy and I were there during Katrina. –Curt

  11. Wonderful shots–crescents and birds! I was fortunate to be in the path of totality in Oregon and is quite something to witness a full eclipse. My one regret (minimal!) is that I wasn’t near where birds were–that would have been interesting to observe. I can report that all the humans near me were really excited and overwhelmed though!

    1. I was so happy to have both the shadows and the birds to share. it seemed to add just a little something extra to a nice experience. I can only imagine that being able to see a truly total eclipse would be even more special. We’ll both get a chance for another look in a few years. It surprises me that it should be happening again so soon, but I’m not very well versed in the science of it all.

      I did see something interesting tonight involving birds and Hurricane Harvey: a radar image of birds inside the eye of the storm.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed them, Pete. The tree shadows remind me of the sort of ghostly figures that might haunt a graveyard, or trees taken life in a Nordic tale. Great fun!

    1. Several birds already have passed around the word that the crazy lady on the balcony has put out seed again. I’d stopped filling the feeders to try and discourage the pigeon hordes, but I decided that this was a time to bend the rules. Now there are cardinals, doves, sparrows, and pigeons having a nice, dry breakfast — and they seem to be glad of it. I’ve got enough to keep them during the storm, but then it’s back to naturally-occuring rations.

  12. Black-crowned and green herons? In your yard? How fab!! You must live in paradise. I love the ‘fishies’ shadow the best. It was great fun with the kids exploring the yard during the maximum eclipse. The birds in our yard simply disappeared …

    1. I wouldn’t call it paradise, but it is great fun having the water birds around — even though I miss the variety of songbirds I’ve had in other places. I think a lot of people enjoyed the eclipse more than they anticipated. Personally, I learned a good bit about eclipses this time around, and will be much better prepared for the next one.

    1. Thanks, Dina. It was wonderful, and I’m glad to have some nice photos of the experience. Like you, I think the herons are gorgeous. I’ll be happy to start seeing them again now, as the flood waters recede.

    1. Thank you. It was a challenge to find a way through all those leaves, not to mention dealing with the bright sunlight and deep shadows. Hooray for being able to toss dozens of digital images from that particular “workshop.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.