A little blue heron (Egretta caerulea) snatches a carp from a mud flat at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area. About half the size of the more widespread great blue heron, this little blue was an unexpected treat as I settled into the cattails on a late-summer morning.
At first glance, the adult little blue heron is not very eye-catching, virtually monochromatic in its namesake color. A closer look reveals a gradation of subtle hues, from a slate-blue body to a maroon head and neck. The pale blue base of the spear-shaped bill further complements the appearance of this beautiful water bird.
The little blue heron is most common in the Mississippi Lowlands of southeast Missouri, where they often nest in mixed colonies with other heron species, but they can be spotted during migration in other parts of the state. Identification can be a bit tricky, depending on the bird’s age. First year little blue herons are all white (see inset photo) and can be mistaken for the snowy egret, which is similar in size but has an entirely dark bill, black legs, and yellow feet. As the little blue enters its second year of life, its plumage undergoes a transition from white to blue, giving it a “calico” or “pied” appearance.
The little blue heron is a calm and patient predator, usually hunting from a fixed location, but sometimes strolling through shallow wetlands in search of prey, including fish, amphibians, and a variety of invertebrates. I was fortunate to photograph all three color phases of the species during my visit to Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, as they fed on carp and other fish that were stranded in an ephemeral pool. It was a great day to practice my identification skills as the little blues fed alongside great egrets, snowy egrets, and great blue herons. I was surprised at how tiny the little blue herons appeared next to their great blue cousins.
When asked how I find such temporary pools in which to photograph herons on conservation areas, I always reply, “Look to the sky.” I arrive at the area well before dawn and watch for circling birds, especially great egrets, low over cattails and other vegetation. Next, I don my hip waders and head toward the activity, where I usually find a feeding pool. I rarely have to worry about camouflage; I just place my turkey hunting chair in the tall vegetation at water’s edge. If you are fastidious about your gear and clothing, mudflats aren’t the place for you. By the time I finish shooting, I’m often covered in mud, much like the fish in the featured photo. But, as always with wildlife photography, the reward is worth all of the effort.
—Story and photographs by Danny Brown
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