It’s the Early Bird, With Its Catch

This Great Egret (Ardea alba) probably wouldn’t have rejected the proverbial early bird’s worm as a snack, but it was morning at Brazos Bend, and time to search for something a little more substantial.

After scanning the skies for several minutes, the egret began scrutinizing the surrounding water with that wonderful intensity common to wading birds.

Predictably, its strike was fast and unpredictable: so much so that I nearly missed it.  Egrets prefer fish, but within the thick foliage a frog, snake, crawfish, or shrimp might have been its target.

Given the strength of its bill and the speed of its attack, the bird’s success was understandable, although the prey it pulled from the water wasn’t easy to identify.

No matter. The bird seemed pleased with its catch, and I was more than pleased to have caught its image in the early morning light.


Comments always are welcome.

75 thoughts on “It’s the Early Bird, With Its Catch

  1. Wildlife photographer Ron Magill calls this, “Spray and Pray,” but in this case it’s the only way to capture such a wonderful series of images. Nicely done (and amazingly focused). Makes me want fish for dinner.

    1. That’s a great phrase. I might phrase it ‘patience and luck,’ but that’s not nearly so alliterative or memorable. I nearly walked past this bird; it took some slow walking to get into a position where it wasn’t obscured by the foliage. In fact, it might have taken me longer to get in position than to get the photos.

  2. These are fabulous. It IS hard to identify the prey. Not a frog, I think, or you would see flailing legs. They are fast, aren’t they? If I don’t have the fast-shot setting on my little digital, I miss the dive! And so determined. These photos are absolutely brilliant, Linda. Bravo.

    1. I don’t think it’s a frog, or a fish. I considered one of the freshwater mussels that are around. That bill certainly is strong enough to crack one open: muscles for mussels, if you will. The shutter speed was 1/320; a little faster might have sharpened the drops a bit, but I’m happy with the overall image.

  3. Good work in keeping the egret focused. The splashing water in the third picture reveals the rapidity of the strike. I hope the object in the bird’s bill wasn’t an eyeglasses case, which is how I saw it.

    1. I was using my 70-300mm lens, but the focal length of the various photos ranged from 105mm to 140mm. That helped with the sharpness. Once I extend the lens beyond 200mm — especially to 300mm — a little camera shake sets in.

      An eyeglass case actually makes sense, since I’m nearly convinced the bird pulled a fresh water mussel from the water. After all, mussels come in ‘cases,’ too.

    1. Maybe not confused, but bemused: rather like me, when something I don’t expect to work out actually does. These are such beautiful birds, and it’s great fun to catch them going about their daily business.

    1. It amazes me how long they can hold a position. More than a few egrets and herons have outwaited me. I sit and sit and watch and watch, and finally give up. It reminds me of the ‘staring game’ we played as kids, looking one another in the eyes until one finally looked away.

    1. I’m sure it’s not a fish, although the texture on whatever’s in its beak did lead me to consider a young water snake. Another possibility that makes sense is a fresh water mussel. The egrets and herons can crack their shells, and even the little grebes can deal with them. The shape is right — although now that I’ve look again, I’m wondering if it might be a crawfish. I am sure it’s an egret, though!

        1. Down here, we’d need to talk about the right ‘colors’ for crawfish; we have 39 species (or 36, depending on your source) and their colors vary. In fact, some of the names of crawfish-resembling fishing baits reference the different colors found in different locations, like “Rayburn Red” and “Toledo Gold.” One of my acquaintances has the book she calls the Texas crawfish bible, but I’m not so interested in identifying down to the species level. My interest in crawfish has more to do with étouffée and crawfish pie. Throw in filé gumbo and I’m really happy!

          1. Laughing about the many coloured crawfish from one place to another; but no great surprise really, as the colour of our shrimp in the fish tanks here has changed over time, depending on what they’re eating… So, yet another example of Terroir?
            I’m also wondering if the distinction between ‘Craw’ and ‘Crey’fish are simply differences of pronunciation over time and distance (like that between ‘Canadien’ et ‘Cajun’?)

            1. Could be. I’ve never heard anyone call them ‘crayfish’ out loud. Crawdads, crawfish, and mudbugs are the preferred terms down here.

  4. I’m always impressed at how white white birds stay. How do they do that?

    You’re such a great photographer but I’m curious…I know for every outstanding photo you probably have a bunch of rejects of the same subject. How many of Great Egret did you take that day?

    1. I had the same question about the white birds, and someone told me their preening helps to keep them clean, as well as keeping their feathers in good shape.

      ‘Bunch of rejects’ is putting it mildly. I don’t toss as many now, at least not immediately, but there always are some. I’m not sure how many I took of the egret, but I have 20 remaining in my files, so I’d guess about sixty. Ten or so were dumped immediately because of twigs and such between the camera and the bird, but I knew at the time those wouldn’t work, and I moved to a different position.

  5. Wonderful capture! Yours and the egret’s, whatever she had in her beak. And as always, your photos are so sharp! I just wonder again, is it the camera or the lens or both? It’s more than just steady hands. I use a Nikon 70-300 mm lens too but never could get focus so sharp, even in closer proximity.

    1. I knew that bird-loving you would enjoy this series. It’s always fun to be there for the activities of such apparently ‘inactive’ birds when they decide to do something other than stand around.

      As for your sense of soft focus, I’m not sure. I’m using a Canon Rebel T6s with Canon lenses: good equipment, but hardly top of the line. Your Nikon equipment’s equally good. I can’t imagine any difference between us on that score.

      My lenses do have image stabilization, and my 70-300mm has two modes: one for standard photography and one for panning a moving subject. That helps; do you have that? I always use the manual mode with my macro lens; with birds, I’ll sometimes use manual, and sometimes shutter priority. I rarely use the automatic mode any longer, although I will when there are a lot of birds around and I don’t know what my subject will be.

      I have found that the right light makes a difference, too. When I first found this bird, my ISO setting was too high, because I’d been in the woods. If I’d not checked that, I wouldn’t have these images.

  6. Your posts and pictures, both here and The Task at Hand, enrich my (and I’m sure also for many) life.
    Thank You!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. As far as that early bird goes, it might be more realistic to say it catches whatever it can. After all, saith some certain Stones, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

      Of course, sometimes we get what we don’t want. Only minutes after meeting this bird I was on my way down another trail edging the water when a too-close-for-comfort alligator offered up a territorial bellow. I’m accustomed to grunting alligators, but not the bellowing sort. If you think that bird was fast, you should have seen my about face on the trail.

  7. Peggy patiently stalked a Great Blue Heron at Abbot Lagoon in Pt. Reyes but missed it making the plunge! Great capture, Linda. We also watch them out in the meadows where they are quite happy to add a mouse to their seafood diet. –Curt

    1. I often have snowy egrets or green herons around me when I work; they perch on and fish from the dock lines, which often swing only a few inches above the water. I don’t know how those birds do it, but the second you glance away, there they go – headfirst after that tasty ‘whatever.’ I often see cattle egrets in our neighborhood, but never these (or the snowies). The ibis are quite common, probing the ground for crawdads, grubs, or grasshoppers.

      1. Lots of birds, or I should note, lots of entertainment, Linda. Most of our birds are on the smallish side in comparison, but still amusing. And supposedly there are a pair of bald eagles nest nearby but I have yet to find their nest. –Curt

        1. Eagles would be great. Ours are north of me, up around the lakes and more wooded areas. The fishermen have been saying there are more this year than they’ve ever seen.

          1. it’s exciting to see the return of the bald eagle in many areas that had disappeared from, Linda. I often look out the window and see one soaring above me. –Curt

  8. Yum, yum!! I’m glad Mr. (or Ms.) Egret didn’t mind posing for this photo shoot, Linda. Just goes to show we all need to eat, and thankfully, Nature has equipped creatures like this with just the right set of skills to do so. Well done!

    1. I’m fairly sure the egret didn’t realize there was a photo shoot taking place. I was able to move fairly close to it — so close that, had it known I was there, it probably would have moved farther down the shore, even if it didn’t fly. On the other hand, I can get pretty intent on a pint of mint chip, so maybe breakfast was more important to the bird than an intruder. You’re certainly right that these wading birds have both tools and skills for supporting themselves, although they have to practice, too. I’ve seen their frustration with ‘misses’!

  9. I’m convinced that being a good photographer is much like being a good hunter and a good pray-er. One learn the skills and gain the experience but then one has to show up and be willing to accept whatever universe brings whether it be a great photo, a good meal, or peace and contentment. Thanks for sharing your catch.

    1. Likewise for being a good varnisher. Even with the right tools and years of experience behind me, if nature serves up rain, or fog, or cold, or storm-level winds, it’s time to call it a day and wait for another time. I’ve long thought that the patience and flexibility I’ve learned at work has served me well with photography.

  10. Oddly enough I had a bagful of mussels last night without regret and I am not an egret. They were live mussels from Chile in a vacuum bag swimming in tomato and garlic.
    A wonderful world, Linda

    1. Ha! There’s a beautiful boat I see from time to time: a trawler like this that’s named “No Egrets.” Every time I see it, I laugh. The only better name is a similar boat named “Biscuit” that had a tender named “Gravy.”

      Mussels aren’t nearly so common here as shrimp and fin fish, but they can be had. Mussels, tomato, and garlic sounds to me like the beginning of a nice Paella.

    1. I know. When I hear about an early bird, I naturally think of a robin pulling a nice, fat earthworm from the ground. The menu’s different down here, but the appreciation of a good meal’s the same.

  11. Are you a member of the North American Nature Photography Association? There are beautiful photos that remind me of your work. I think membership is required to view the awesome work.

    1. To be honest, I hadn’t heard of that organization. Some of the photos I viewed on the website were more than beautiful: evidence of great skill and good equipment. The cost to join is a little steep. I’d do better to put that hundred dollars into a fund for another lens.

        1. There’s pretty good company among photographers on this site, and there’s a great side benefit: most are willing to share tips, and tips are better than expensive equipment when it comes to improvement.

  12. This post recalls the meditative state I sometimes reach when I knit to music, and the knitting is such that I can take my brain out of gear and let it freewheel. Such a state produced this relevant bit of poetry:

    In the mind’s still pond,
    the silver thoughts swim slowly.
    The heron chooses.

  13. Great shots, Linda.
    To me, the curve and colour of the catch in the last image remind me of a small water snake curled up.

    1. Every now and then, I look at that last photo and think the expression in the bird’s eye suggests it’s thinking, “I got it! What is it?” I’m still not sure, although snake’s a good guess. The curve suggests a crawdad, too; the antennae and such could be hidden on the other side of the heron’s beak.

    1. I especially like the curves of the wings. I’ve never thought of it before, but it looks as though the bird has spread its wings to help it stay balanced while striking at its prey. I like the apparent solidity of the wings, too. You’re right; it’s just a beautiful bird.

    1. If it’s a snake, it’s a young one. Otherwise, there would be a head and tail visible. Also: if it were a snake, it would have been swallowed right away. The bird continued to hold the ‘whatever,’ so I left, thinking it might have been waiting to crack open something with a shell until it was sure it was alone.

    1. I did use my 70-300mm lens, but not fully extended. I was close enough that 105mm-140mm was enough. Either I was especially quiet that morning, or the bird was especially tolerant.

    1. I enjoy them, too. I’ve always liked your heron box; wouldn’t this one look great on a green box that picked up the green of those lores?

  14. I’m always amazed by the intensity and duration of an egret’s stare in contrast to the sudden stab of the catch. You captured the sequence nicely. It would be interesting to know what the egret caught, but I suppose that’s the egret’s secret.

    1. I’ve heard a rumor that egrets and herons take their staring lessons from cats. To be honest, I can imagine it. However the birds have learned it, their ability to hold a pose for what seems like forever is amazing. As for the catch, I keep looking, but can’t decide what it is. I am fairly confident that fish wasn’t on its plate that morning.

    1. There’s been a lot of crab-cracking going on around the docks, that’s for sure, and a heron or egret does have the muscle to tackle a mussel, so maybe that’s what it snatched. How they time their strikes is a mystery and an amazement. I wondered how many times they miss, in comparison to successful strikes, and I discovered there are studies galore on just that issue.

    1. You not only dared, you did! And I’d have to agree with you on both counts. There’s a lot of luck involved in nature photography, and this time I was lucky enough to ‘catch’ the egret catching its breakfast. I’m glad I only have to open the refrigerator.

    1. Isn’t that the truth? I’ve gotten better at anticipating these birds and the Great Blue Herons, but ‘better’ is a relative term! The Snowy Egrets and Green Herons are faster than lightning.

  15. That’s quite a striking picture you have there. I wonder if waterbirds can “hear” water creatures the same way robins appear to “hear” worms. It’s a mysterious world out there.

    1. I’ve wondered about that myself. I’m sure that vibrations play a role, as well as sound. Of course we always assumed that the robin’s cocked head meant that it was listening for worms, but apparently that’s not so. Their sense of sight is acute, and most of the time they’re looking for wormholes. Find a hole, find a worm!

    1. It was such fun to find and photograph this one. He didn’t seem to mind the company at all; I suppose after a long night he was ready for breakfast, and wasn’t going to let a silly human deter him!

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