Another episode in the life of a great blue heron. What I am describing here, I am sure, is a rare occurrence. That it does happen is sure, but that it is witnessed is rarer still.
Look over there. Do you see the great blue heron? Herons are such beautiful creatures, sedate and always so dignified. As our canoe slowly drifts past, the large bird seems to be sleeping, or perhaps it is meditating.
Lifting one wing, the heron grooms itself, combing out its feathers in little shaky moves of that versatile beak, and then it repeats the procedure under the opposite wing. It shakes vigorously, and a fluffy breast feather flutters to the water’s surface. A vagrant breeze, a breath of wind, carries the feather off as though it has a life of its own. Or perhaps it is not a feather at all but rather a Lilliputian ship on a voyage from here to there.
Another great blue heron is wading along the shore in water that is deep enough almost to reach its body. It suddenly stops and, in slow motion, lowers its head, pointing that terrible beak at something that only it can see. The very personification of patience holds that intense pose.
Suddenly, as an arrow shot from a bow, the beak is thrust forward unerringly and almost immediately withdrawn, a six-inch long bream struggling weakly, nerves paralyzed, impaled.
With a quick flick of the heron’s beak, the fish is flipped into the air, caught by the head even as it falls toward the water, and swallowed.
We are on the beautiful Wekiva River. Almost silently, we move on, the only sound the dripping of water as our paddles propel us down the stream.
Oh yes, there are other sounds, but they are natural. A fish splashes behind us, and almost beside us, there is suddenly the sound of breaking twigs on the riverbank, followed by a splash, as an alligator, small, perhaps six feet long, disturbed by our passage, retreats to the safety of the dark brown, tannin colored water.
A little further along, we pass a yellow-crowned night heron concealed in some thick bushes at the river’s edge. She watches us warily from her nest as our momentum carries us past.
Look up ahead of us. Another great blue heron! What a magnificent bird. We sit and watch as it fishes.
This is the prime habitat for many of the varied species of Florida’s wildlife. Abundant fish frequent the waters, and though it is fresh water, even stingrays, sometimes in schools of as many as fifty or sixty, having swam upstream from their ocean habitat near Jacksonville, seem to fly through the shallow water.
A variety of turtles, snakes, and of course, the alligator all call it home. There are bobcats here and otters, as well as raccoons and possums. This is also home to the whitetail deer, ursas Americanus Floridanus, and my friend, the Florida black bear.
Look, the heron has caught a fish and is in the process of eating it.
Suddenly, another great blue heron appears. It glides around a small point of land. On those magnificent, silent wings and blindsided, the fishing heron surprised us, as well as the heron, knocking it down into the shallow water in a flurry of wings and splashing water.
Swiftly, faster almost than our eyes can follow, the attacker’s beak flashes in a series of lethal strikes. The victim of this attack tries desperately to regain its feet but in vain. It opens its beak, snapping at its attacker. And then, almost before it has begun, it is over.
The attacker stands over the body for a few seconds, watching. Then it shakes itself to settle ruffled feathers, and lifting into the air with a raucous squawk of victory, it is gone.
The heron’s body lies unmoving in the shallow water. By tomorrow it will likely be gone, eaten by an ever-hungry alligator.
The only thing that I can imagine that might have precipitated such a deadly attack is a territorial issue. Usually, great blue herons are very tolerant of their own kind, but on that day, no tolerance was shown.
AN OUTDOORSMAN’S PRAYER
Dear God, please help me to be tolerant of others as you are tolerant of me. Teach me to be patient, allow others to be themselves, and never strike out verbally or in any other way in revenge or spite. Help me to epitomize my lord and master, Jesus Christ, in all matters. I praise you, Father, and I thank you for giving me victory this day. In Jesus’ Holy and wonderful name, I ask it, Amen.
Charles Towne is, first and foremost, a Christian. An octogenarian, author, journalist, wildlife photographer, naturalist, caregiver, and survivor, his life has been, and continues to be, a never-ending adventure filled with possibilities never imagined. He has adopted the philosophy that to Live fully, laugh uproariously, love passionately, and learn like there is no tomorrow, is a formula for a long and joy-filled life.
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