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The Waiting Game

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 19, 2010

I'd stalked slowly and carefully along the shoreline of a marshy slough to photograph wood ducks. I settled into a natural hide, getting as comfortable as I could in the mud, and began my vigil. The wood ducks remained out of camera range, but while I waited I caught a slight movement in the corner of my eye. Just 35 feet away on the far bank was an adult green heron. It was waiting there—just like me.

The green heron stopped and started its way along the river's edge as it searched for fish, frogs or just about anything else for its next meal. Each time it halted, it assumed a crouched and horizontal posture with its head and neck recoiled for a strike. Most of the time it stood perfectly motionless. For the next 35 minutes we both waited—the heron for prey and I for a photograph. Finally, its head jabbed forward into the shallow water, making a small splash. I was suprised to see that the bird came up empty. Had it wasted 35 minutes? I knew I hadn't.

Green herons are one of a few bird species that use lures or bait to attract prey. They place their own feathers, insects, earthworms, twigs—even bread or popcorn—to attract fish within range of their spear-shaped bill. They usually grasp their prey, rather than spear it.

Green herons often perch just above the water. The waiting green heron in this series of pictures was rewarded with a small bug. Green herons prey on a wide range of invertebrates, including leeches, earthworms, water bugs, snails and diving beetles. Fish and frogs account for most of their diet.

When they feel threatened, green herons raise their crest feathers and flip their tail feathers.

Standing and waiting is the most common hunting strategy employed by green herons. Ornithologists have observed 15 distinct feeding strategies among these birds. These include walking quickly, plunging, diving feet-first, stirring the water with their feet and even swimming in the pursuit of food.

 

Nestlings develop rapidly. They leave the nest 16 or 17 days after hatching and are capable of flight at 21 or 22 days. The young birds shown at left retain their downy feathers amid their developing juvenile plumage.

The pictures of preening at right show a green heron grasping its breast feathers at their base and swiping them to the tip. The heron then scratched its head with its middle toe, stretched, shook its feathers and extended a wing.

 

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