More luck than normal

great egret Ardea alba in reed bed in middle distance
It had been a while since I’d spent any time at all at the nearby pond, so the other afternoon I wandered over to see what could be found. Right off the bat, I could see a great egret (Ardea alba) hanging out at the nearest edge, about where the green herons had been hunting earlier. Pausing well back where I wouldn’t spook it, I affixed the long lens and began working my way closer, getting photos as I went.

Amusingly, my caution was not terribly necessary, because this was easily the most mellow egret that I’ve come across, and I couldn’t say why. I never pushed my luck during the initial stalking session, because once you’ve gone too far, you don’t have anything to shoot as the egret flies off. But as it slipped into deeper cover under the trees during its perambulations, eliminating any clear view, I fired off a couple of frames as I continued along the pond shore in pursuit of other subjects.

great egret Ardea alba portrait under tree overhang
I looped around the pond, and noticed on the return leg that the egret had flown off across the water from its original position and was now in my path again, standing on the open shore. However, someone was walking along in front of me, and I was convinced that they’d spook the egret off again, because that’s generally the pattern; even as they notice and marvel at the wildlife, they still scare it off.

Just not this time. The egret paid no heed to the man walking a few meters past, and remained in place as I myself approached. Mellow.

mellow great egret Ardea alba on pond shore
Even better, it began stalking the minnows in the shallows as I watched. Except… the autofocus kept wandering to the background, so I quickly shut it off, but that meant trying to lock onto a bobbing egret head as it hunted, which is tricky. I did what I could, but on returning and unloading the card, I found too few images were passing muster.

great egret Ardea alba with recent wriggling capture
Sure, I got a few useful images, but they were mostly of the portrait kind, and not the action that I was hoping to get. Or the fish was barely identifiable as a fish. This was annoying, since it’s rare to get the opportunity to be as close as this, where I should have been able to nail feather detail as well as the fish itself, and not get it.

great egret Ardea alba with tiny fish
But I took the opportunity for the portraits, anyway.

great egret Ardea alba stalking alongside pond
The sky was clear and reflecting in the water, the view was largely unobstructed, and the backgrounds pleasant and usually uncluttered. It could have been worse, and usually is.

great egret Ardea alba head against pond background
(Mostly, I’m just taking the opportunity to post the better shots, since the narrative is composed of, well, more fishing.)

Occasionally, it was working.

great egret Ardea alba with capture
Okay, now seriously, this was a roller coaster when I was reviewing and editing the shots. “Ah, nice, but the fish isn’t too visible.”

Then…

great egret Ardea alba portrait
“Great! Look at those sharp eyes, and right before it plunged into the water after a fish, annnddd…”

great egret Ardea alba out of focus“… shit, missed the tracking.” Generally, there are only a few seconds before the egret will gulp down a fish this size, and trying to track focus with a moving head is challenging – too challenging, it seems, at least for this session. Too often, you may come out with the impression (or at least I do) that you’re bringing home some really slick images, and then find out that something wasn’t quite right and you’re not even going to retain them in your stock folders.

That was Friday. Saturday I had a short period of time before I had to be into work, and made another circuit of the pond, but was seeing no sign of the egret. While the species appears at the pond, off and on, they never seem to reside for more than a couple of days, and we’re approaching migration season; the green heron brood that I was tracking earlier all seem to have moved on now. Saturday’s attempt was with The Girlfriend, and we stopped to talk to a neighbor while out there, until I was about out of time, so we finished the circuit quickly. And naturally, as we rounded the far end under the copse of trees there, the egret was waiting for us, again, far closer to the edge and every person strolling past (there are quite a few, especially since March) than most egrets ever allow. I had time for a couple of quick frames, but not at all for standing and watching for more fishing behavior.

great egret Ardea alba hanging out in shadows
Sunday wasn’t gonna happen, so the next time that I could make a pass was Monday morning, sunny and pleasant, and sure enough, the egret was waiting right where I’d first seen it two days previously, posing like an old hand.

great egret Ardea alba posed on old snag with reflection
I casually slipped in close, less than ten meters off, and sat down in easy view, ready for all fishing behavior and maybe even shooting some video. The sun was the right angle, the wind was calm… and the egret wasn’t doing nothing.

great egret Ardea alba scratching neck
Well, I mean, sure, preening, scratching, sunbathing, but not stalking a damn thing, nor even appearing to be interested in the water.

great egret Ardea alba preening
At least it wasn’t bothered by me sitting right there, also in plain sight. My allergies started playing up and I ended up having to sneeze violently, twice, and all I earned from the egret was a brief inspection to assure it that I wasn’t getting ready to attack. I was starting to get the impression that if I’d brought along some goldfish crackers, I could have hand-fed the damn bird.

great egret Ardea alba scratching chin
Don’t get the idea that it was constantly involved in its grooming – there were more occasions when it was staring off into space, or checking out the sky overhead, but there are only so many photos you can get of that. But I did catch it peering intently between its legs, perhaps suddenly realizing that they bent backwards and so weren’t knees, but ankles.

great egret Ardea alba looking between its legs
[This is true, by the way; birds essentially walk on tiptoe, and the knees are buried up inside the feathers.]

Eventually, it wandered again under the cover of the nearby trees, well shielded from easy sight, and I started walking on around the pond again. Between the three sessions, I have a bunch of other subjects, but they’ll come in later posts.

The Girlfriend had again joined me by this point, and we rounded the pond again, only to find the egret now standing immediately before us. I was starting to wonder if there were two, but this was never confirmed and each time the behavior was just as easygoing, so I’m presuming it was only one. That kept appearing ahead of us on our path. Yeah, you figure it out.

extreme closeup of great egret Ardea alba showing sunlight refracting through cornea onto cheek
We’re talking about five meters distant, and not only unconcerned about my standing there, it actually drew closer instead of moving away, allowing me to do not just extreme portraits, but to capture the cornea acting like a lens and shining sunlight on its own cheek. But as it started actively hunting, I decided to switch to video instead, and captured some behavior that we’d first seen three days previously.

First off, yes, next time I’ll try to have the tripod with me, but bear in mind, as close as I was, setting up such a thing may well have spooked the bird off. I wasn’t using the external monitor, so it meant not just hand-holding a heavy super-telephoto lens (it weighs 2 kg all by itself,) but out away from my face since I had to use the LCD on the back to frame and focus. You try it.

The loud bird that you hear in the background is a red-shouldered hawk, fairly common around the pond and not a threat to egrets, but they still check the sky when such things sound off. Don’t ask me to identify the fish – all I can tell you is that it’s the kind with fins.

Meanwhile, that wriggling, which if you watch seems mostly confined to the neck – I don’t know what that’s about, and have never seen it before from any waders. Bitterns, I’ve seen something like that, but only when their head was raised straight up and they were trying to look like reeds swaying in the breeze. And cats – seen that from cats. But not herons or egrets. I initially suspected it might be from seating its feet firmly in the mud for a stable strike, but the legs appear motionless and even the body is very constrained. So, until further notice, I’ll have to tell you that I don’t know. But I’m glad to catch it on video. And also glad to actually snag what I intended to with any given session. That doesn’t happen often.

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