Keeping an Eye on the Prize


Given the form of the ripples, I suspect this juvenile Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) had its eyes on a crab rather than a fish.

Its yellow feet, sometimes called ‘yellow slippers,’ make these birds unmistakable as adults, but it can be easy to confuse young Snowy Egrets with juvenile Little Blue Herons. In this case, the lime green leg color, the black bands on the front of the legs, and the crouched foraging posture helped to confirm its identity.

Although I watched and waited for nearly ten minutes, the strike I anticipated never came: the prey continued to swim, and the bird continued to watch. If patience be a virtue, this is a very virtuous bird.


Comments always are welcome. Click on any photo for greater size and detail.

54 thoughts on “Keeping an Eye on the Prize

    1. When I went back and checked my revisions to the post, I had to laugh. Originally, I ended with these lines: “the prey continued to swim, and the bird continued to watch. I should be so patient.” Sometimes, metaphysics can serve as a handy cover for reality.

  1. It looks very healthy and well nourished so I have no doubt it is getting its fair share of prey. Wonderful, clear shot by the way. Your photographs are always excellent, Linda.

    1. I appreciate the compliment, David, but early on I learned one of the best photographer’s tricks: show only the best. When I found a huge flock of roseate spoonbills recently, it killed me that my 70-300mm lens wasn’t enough to capture them with any degree of clarity. Patience, saith the egret — there will be another time.

  2. another excellent photo. early in my career I did a carved glass piece of a snowy egret, shipped it off for an exhibition and never saw it again. the one and only time a piece of mine sold during an exhibition.

    1. What an interesting coincidence. They are beautiful birds, and widely appealing, so it doesn’t surprise me that it sold. I’m going to have to go back over to your site and see if there’s an egret feather in the collection. I seem to remember that there is.

  3. I’ve often wondered what goes through the bird’s mind as it waits and watches. I’d love to experience the world as the bird does, but only for a few minutes. Would those few minutes seem like hours, seconds, or perhaps the question of time simply does not apply.

    But whatever it seems like to us, it works for the bird. Maybe not so much for the prey. And I agree the water effect you went for in the photograph is nicely done.

    1. While instinct plays a role, there seems to be learned behavior, too. Twelve species of bird are known to use bait (insects, bread, worms) as tools to catch fish, and seven belong to the heron family. The Green Heron is especially adept at using the technique.

      This egret, on the other hand, carries it’s own Rat-L-Trap lure with it. It will partially submerge its bill in the water, and then begin opening and closing the bill rapidly. The sound and vibration attract the fish, and it’s dinnertime.

      Here’s a question: if we could experience the world as a bird does — out of time — would we remember the experience when we returned to this world?

      1. I remember a time when I was taught that tool use is what sets humans apart from other animals. That claim has gone by the wayside, as have so many others regarding consciousness and mental processes.

        But would I remember my time out of time as a bird? Is awareness of time and its passage an essential element of consciousness, in that to know I am must I know I am now, and to know what now is implies time? All bird-brain jokes aside, I expect I’d remember that time as a bird as I remember a dream, if at all. Through a glass darkly, at best, if I may steal an allusion.

        1. I wonder if our experience of time when we’re ‘caught up’ in some experience would be akin to bird time. There are occasions when I’m out with my camera that I suddenly realize the light has changed. When I look at the time, I’m often to astonished to find two or three hours have passed without my having any sense of it. I suppose self-forgetfulness is key.

    1. I suppose the best tip I can offer (and a lesson I still struggle with) is not to demand more of the camera than it can give. Even with a 70-300mm lens, I often can’t get close enough to birds for a nice, sharp image. The big ones park themselves too far away, and the little ones fly as I move towards them. It’s a good lens, but it has its limits — as do I!

      Over time, I’ve learned to increase my shutter speed, particularly if there’s a chance a bird will fly. I use burst shooting quite a bit; I think you do, too. With birds in places like shrubbery, using one-point auto-focus helps a lot. Focus on the eye, and the rest of the bird tends to come along.

      Other than that — just practice, I guess. The best have been doing it for years, with the best equipment, but I’m not sure they enjoy it any more than we do.

    1. Thanks, Becky. I’m slowly, slowly learning how to create certain effects, and sometimes they really do add to the final image: like the slightly smoothed water. It was pretty and clean to start with, so the reflection of the blue sky and clouds was exceptionally nice.

  4. It’s amazing they don’t get a stiff neck, hunched up like that for so long, and without getting crabby when they don’t catch anything. It’s good to be patient, but I’d end up as a chiropractic patient. it’s a great shot, Linda!

    1. It is amazing how they can contort themselves, not to mention their ability to hold a position for what seems like forever. I suppose if they get a reward in the form of a fish or a crab, it seems worthwhile. And if they miss? It’s said that intermittent reinforcement — unpredictable random rewards in response to repeated behavior — is the strongest motivator there is, so there’s that. Besides, they might just enjoy the fishing.

      1. I really think it’s quite likely that they “might just enjoy the fishing”as it doesn’t take much watching to see that soaring birds most definitely do so just for the pure pleasure of riding the thermals. How ridiculously pompous of Man to presume he’s the only creature to feel pain or be intelligent enough to use tools.

        1. There’s no question some birds fly for the pure pleasure of it. We see it often with our pelicans. There are a couple of places where the winds apparently are great for cruising. Drive across the causeway into Galveston, and you’ll see long lines of pelicans flying alongside the bridge. They’re not going anywhere, and they aren’t fishing. They seem to have no purpose in mind but having a little fun together.

  5. That is a stunning photo, Linda! Quiet and introspective, it also is a scene with movement and life, that’s a remarkable combination! I hope your bird was rewarded with a meal–sooner or later!

    1. I think the colors add to the feeling of serenity, as well as the simplicity of the composition. I was delighted beyond words to see the little crab show up. The fish seem to limit themselves to an occasional splash, but the crabs often swim just under the surface and create nice ripples. I think everyone’s eating pretty well at this point. Even at work, I’ve noticed more shrimp, fish, and crabs in the marina than usual — and more birds fishing among the boats.

  6. The composition of this photo is superb, Linda — I love the striking white and blue together. This baby seems to have innate patience — would that humans were born with that, ha!

    1. Blue and white’s as nice a combination as yellow and blue. It always reminds me of clouds in the sky: nice, fluffy summer clouds that are decoration rather than rainmakers. No, patience isn’t part of our standard equipment, I’m afraid. We have to learn what the heron knows: wait long enough, and patience will be rewarded. (Most of the time, anyway. There are times when it’s slim pickings even for the birds, but that’s far from the case now.)

    1. You have them in abundance — no question about that. I know you have the same problems we have with overbuilding, poor planning, and such, but I’ve always enjoyed my time there, and now that I’m interesting in plants and birds, I’d love to come back again for a different sort of visit. Maybe some day!

    1. Are they still at the pond, or do they leave over the winter? I can’t remember. Surely they leave; it’s fine now, but in a few weeks, fishing conditions up there won’t be so great. We certainly can learn a lot about patience from them, and there’s a side benefit for amateur photographers — they stay still for us!

  7. The patience of these apex hunters is, of course, necessary for their survival. I marvel at such perseverance. Having said that, as you know, waiting to photograph that explosive strike is quite frustrating!

    Great photograph of the Snowy!

    1. I rarely if ever get frustrated when watching the birds; I suspect it’s because I’m not waiting for anything particular to happen. I’m just watching. On the other hand, there are plenty of times when I tire of watching, and go on to something else. As you know, there’s always a ‘something else’ to be enjoyed somewhere down the road.

      I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek the way some people read their Bibles, and her chapter on “Stalking” is fabulous. Maybe the best line from the chapter is this one: “The old, classic rule for stalking is, ‘Stop often ‘n’ set frequent.'” But that’s only the beginning, and she unpacks the rule in marvelous descriptions of her time with muskrats, herons, water striders. If you’ve not read the book, start with that chapter. If you have read the book, the chapter’s worth reading again. It’s an instruction manual for finding much more than muskrats.

      1. There you go again. Another book added to my reading list. (Thank you.)

        (Returning the favor.)
        If you haven’t read “The Forest Unseen” by David George Haskell, you might consider it. A biologist, Haskell visited the same square-meter patch of old-growth forest almost daily for a year. The book is about his observations – and so much more.

        1. Very interesting. Chris Helzer, who works for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, entertained and educated us with his own square meter project. Now I’m wondering if he got the idea from Haskell, or if both snagged the idea from the ether. I once thought of doing the same, but I just discovered the plot of land that interested me has been sold, mowed, burned, and fenced. I should look for another spot. It would be a great 2021 project. Thanks for the tip on Haskell; the book’s on my reading list now.

  8. While you may not have captured a successful, or not, strike, the bird’s patience and yours provided a fine shot. The ripples in the water as well as those around the crab are a very nice complement with the rich blue sky reflection. A virtuous bird and likewise the photographer.

    1. As I just mentioned to Wally, I wasn’t necessarily waiting for a strike. I just was watching. When I noticed that the heron had become invisible enough for the crabs to begin surfacing, there was nothing to do but wait for the heron and the crab ripples to enter the frame together.

      I spend a lot of time at work looking down toward the water, and it’s a benefit when I’m at the refuges. Alligators, garfish, cormorants, crabs — they all have signature ripples that makes them easy to spot, even when they’re underwater. In fact, I’ve got a “ripple ID” post to put up — just as soon as I find one of the ‘missing’ photos in my archives.

    1. I’m sure it was. There was food galore in the neighborhood, and it looked like a fine, healthy bird. What I can’t quite figure out is how they keep their feathers so white while they’re wading around in the mud. You’d think there would be at least an occasional egret with less than pristine feathers, but I can’t remember seeing one.

    1. You’re right about the chaos of that sudden plunge toward prey. It’s also so darned fast I’ve rarely been able to capture it. The solution? A willingness to sit around and wait, along with the heron. It’s not so dramatic, but at least in this instance it did yield a decent photo.

    1. Thanks! I was pleased with it. One of the great advantages of the herons for a photographer is their way of fishing. A bird that stays in one spot is easier to photograph than those little flitty things.

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