Wednesday, February 24, 2010

GOOD FISHING!

You wouldn't have thought today would have been a good day for fishing—not with the air temperature below freezing and snow falling during much of the afternoon. But some of us are more fair-weather fisherman than others, I guess, or at least aren't quite so compelled to either catch our meal or starve.
Consider this as you will. I can assure you there's at least one great blue heron in southwest-Ohio who won't be going to the roost hungry…not tonight, anyway.
During a period of a couple of hours, I watched the stately feathered fisherman in the photos nail five fish. Most weren't nearly as large as the one (a shad, I think) in the pictures—but neither were they mere minnows. I don't know what that individual bird's fish tally was for the day, or how even a big a bird could eat so much.
There were three other herons working the stretch of river I could see from my window view, either standing along the edge of the water or ensconced in one of several riffles below the cottage. I have no idea whether their fishing success equaled that of the bird I kept the closer watch on and photographed. But judging from what I've learned of heron behavior, if a buddy was getting fish regularly and they weren't, I'd expect an ongoing series of equity squabbles. Today, for once, everybody stayed in place and minded their own business, so I presume fishing luck was good all around.
Of course all fisherman—feathered or otherwise—are a bit secretive when it comes to their favorite fishing holes. When the heron in the photos captured a smaller fish, the catch was quickly swallowed. But when the fish was larger, the sneaky bird would fly into the island's woods, away from the prying eyes of his competitors, where he could take his time getting things arranged and consumed. And believe me, a fish such as the one in the photos is no easy meal for a heron to down.
The fish must be positioned just right in the beak, turned until it points headfirst into the bird's mouth. That way, sharp dorsal spines don't lodge in the upper palate, and side-fin spines won't catch in the throat. The fish is then lifted as the bird's head is thrown back, allowing a straight shot down the old gullet. With a mostly-dead, heavy, and sorta limp fish, this is no easy task—it requires balance, patience, experience, and luck. I've watched a hereon spend more than an hour trying to make all the elements come together at the same moment—flipping the fish up and back again, and again, and again…until finally the process worked. Sometimes a bird gets so tired before it manages this that it has to take a rest, then come back for round two. And once the fish is in the back of the throat and starting down, it can still require all sorts of head shakings, neck undulations, and overall stretchings to do the trick. The whole business looks painful.
Through binoculars I watched the bird swallow the fish. I couldn't get a photo, though—sorry.
The task went fairly smoothly, and the heron got the meal down in less than a quarter-hour. Then it flew back to the same place and began patiently watching the edge of the river…and five minutes later, caught another—smaller—fish. Yeah, I'm thinking glutton.
I did mention it was a good day for fishing—right?
——————

22 comments:

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

I had no idea a heron could swallow a fish that big!

burp...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lynne…

Neither did I…until I saw it happen. It is the most amazing thing to see—impossible, except they manage it somehow. And you should see when the fish gets stuck in the neck/throat—that fish-shaped lump just like in the cartoons. I don't know why they don't chok.

Jain said...

I bet he was groaning from a full belly shortly thereafter! Great shots

KGMom said...

Love that photo of the heron taking off, fish in mouth.
Yow--swallowing whole? No skinning, deboning, roasting over a handy fire? Bleccchhhh...thank goodness I am not a heron.
Sort of a funny thought, though.

Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Well ... the photos you did get are amazing. Guess those big birds are not into taste testing! You would think that finding and catching the fish would be task enough - but then they (as you describe it) have the whole ordeal of ingesting it. Our little lives seem so easy by comparison.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

You know, I'm not sure that heron wasn't a bottomless pit. I saw it eat five fish at least—one soon after the big one in the pix—and though I quite watching soon thereafter, that heron stayed in pretty much the same spot the rest of the day. Who knows how many fish went down its gullet?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

KGMom…

Some serious sushi, for sure. Too, I'm not sure that bird could fly very high, given its bulging belly. It sort of lumbered into the air and flapped about five feet off the ground until it got to where it wanted to stop and eat. I'd doubtless make a rather laughable heron myself…though I'd probably be a hit with the geese.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bonnie…

I'm telling you, the catching is often not nearly the hardest part—it's getting that catch into the belly that's the trouble. You ought to see a bird stand on an ice-covered rock and spin the fish around and into position. A slick, wet, still-flopping fish. The dexterity that takes is unbelievable. I'd hate to try it with two hands, let alone a long, pointed bill.

Oh, yeah, ambling out to the kitchen and opening the 'fridge pales by comparison.

Bernie said...

The photo's are amazing as was your story. I can't imagine what the Heron goes through to eat but I think it would be very interesting to watch......and yes my late husband always kept his favorite fishing spot a secret, I only got to go as he wanted company.......:-) Hugs

Tramp said...

Many years ago at a harbour on the west coast of Scotland (can't remember exactly where) we were waiting to board a boat out to an island (can't remember which, we went island hopping right up the west coast). Anyway a fishing boat loaded with crates of freshly caught herring had just arrived and gulls were gliding down and taking fish from the top crates. A member of the crew was trying to ward off the birds, his arms waving like helicopter blades, but the birds still got through.
One bird swooped down and carried off an enormous fish, head first down the gullet, but it hadn't realised just what a catch it had made. With a fish tail protruding from its mouth the bird attempted to gain height again but the increase in weight made this impossible. Not wanting to loose its catch, it glided in this state down to the water where it sat and bobbed out of sight around the corner of the harbour. What I don't know is how this creature solved its predicament.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

Sooner or later, I have a good opportunity to photograph one the herons eating a good-sized fish. It won't be the same as watching the actual gyrations, but it may give a better insight into what they regularly go through. I don't know whether or not they sometimes overestimate their swallowing capacity or underestimate the size of the fish, and end up choking to death, but I would be at all surprised. It sure looks close to me sometimes.

Fishermen are pretty secretive as a rule, but the outdoor folks who really take things to the limit are the mushroom hunters—who'd sooner give you the pin number to their checking account than tell you where they found that sack of morels.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Tramp…

I can tell you how that gull solved it predicament…digestion. I've watched gluttonous gulls overeat to the point of rendering themselves flightless on more than one occasion—and they do exactly as you've described: go sit somewhere until a sufficient amount of food has, uh, made its journey and exit. I expect penguins simply dealt with the same issue long ago—either you can gorge yourself or you can fly, but a greedy bird can't do both. Gulls have yet to acknowledge the laws of physics.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Scribe - you absolutely MUST put all these wonderful observations into a book - I can see it sitting on my coffee table, full of the most exquisite photographs and magical text. I insist. And bags I the first copy!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

As soon as I can come up with about a thousand more such faithful and enthusastic readers, I'll grab a publisher by the throat and insist…and you shall have the first copy, doubtless signed from my prison cell.

Grace said...

The photo of the heron in flight with the fish is amazing and beautiful. I can only guess as to the patience needed to get photos such as these.

I never would have guessed that it was such a difficult task for the birds to swallow their fish!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Grace…

Most reasonably-sized fish aren't any trouble—turn into position…head up and back…gulp…ahhhh.

But big fish have to be turned, positioned, lifted (and they're rather heavy), and kept balanced as the bird's head goes back, which is where the process goes awry as the limp fish usually folds over—at which point it's try again, from the ground up. WAY more difficult than you might imagine watching them eat a small fish. If it were me, I'd stick with small and medium—but we all think we can manage the big enchilada, right?

As to patience in getting the photos—there is some involved, for sure, but I can also sit at my desk and work semi-productively on other writings, look out the window from time to time, then dash outside and make my photos should a sasquatch or fish-swallowing heron come into view.

Jayne said...

It is always so fascinating to me to see them catch one and then do the "positioning dance" to get it situated to head down into the gullet! Great photos Grizz!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

It is a sort of "positioning dance," isn't it? And the bigger the fish, the more difficult it is for the heron to control things. Not to mention the fact that, when dealing with a large fish, just getting the thing into the throat and started on its way is only part of the battle. The who;e scenario, from catch to consumption, is truly amazing.

Lorac said...

It was indeed a good day! He does seem a glutton but I guess they eat when they can! Do you live by the river? I quite liked the description along with your photos. Thanks for sharing!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Lorac…

I do, indeed, live beside a lovely, small river. And I mean literally beside…it being about 12 feet, most of them down, from my front door to the water's surface. That's when the water is at normal pool level; when it gets high, well, it gets scary….

Not much worthwhile in life comes without a bit of risk.

Larry said...

Super series of the Great Blue Heron Scribe. That fish is huge and I agree it is amazing that they don't sometimes choke to death.

It looks like you have a beautiful place there on the river. I imagine you see all kinds of nature in all its beauty. You are a lucky man.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Larry…

Believe it or not, but I see them catch fish this size way more often than you'd think. And I've watched herons spend over an hour trying to get such a fish down. They are amazing, but then, so are so many birds and animals, doing whatever it takes to survive. We forget that, sometimes—that for them it isn't just a feat, but rather a means to live.

I do live in a good place to see such things, the river, the birds, various animals being literally on my doorstep. But this isn't wilderness by a long shot; it's really just a little pocket between the city, suburbs, and farmlands—sort of the best of all worlds with, in the words of Norman Maclean, a river running through it.

Thank you for your nice words.