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?