NATURE’S VIEW: Within striking distance

Story and photography by Jim Clark

For nature photographers, how exhilarating it is to capture that defining moment as a great blue heron strikes the water? Even better is photographing a full sequence of a great egret stalking its prey and then plunging its bill and neck into the water to seize the prize.

Wading birds come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and each species use specific hunting strategies to gather a bite to eat; ornithologists have even described 35 types of feeding behaviors wading birds use (see a list in a sidebar to this article).

Understanding how each species of wading bird feeds helps the nature photographer to photograph those amazing moments. Combine this knowledge with time in the field, and the photographer will become more and more successful at recording that special “striking” moment.

A great blue heron is about to swallow its prey after tossing and catching it midair. This image was photographed on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. ©  Jim Clark

Here are some feeding strategies of a few wading birds I photograph at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia:

A snowy egret dips its toes on the surface of the water to stir the prey in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Snowy egret: The little white egret with the golden slippers chases its prey by jumping around and flying in short spurts before grabbing a fish.  The snowy also stirs the muddy substrate with its feet to get the prey moving and/or hovers before dropping down to dip its feet in water, surprising the prey. Some ornithologists hypothesize that the snowy egret’s yellow-gold feet startle the prey.

 

Great blue heron: This most regal member of the heron family is a bit stealthier in its approach, using slow and deliberate movements to position itself before striking the water with force. As the great blue walks slowly, it moves its head back and forth to get a better angle and perspective of the prey. The great egret also employs this feeding strategy.

Little blue heron: Like the great blue heron, the little blue heron will move its head slightly back and forth and from side to side to get a better angle of its prey. The little blue also moves slower through shallow waters, being observant and patient.

A tricolored heron chases its prey at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Tricolored heron: Some wading bird species act as if their tails are on fire, rapidly moving about and spreading their wings. The tricolored heron and its cousin the reddish egret are great examples of this feeding behavior.  They chase their prey and canopy feed, a behavior where they extend their wings to throw shade on the water enabling them to see the fish more clearly.

 

Green heron. The sleek green heron is a sneaky one. It stalks its prey, walking slowly along the bank or using stealth movements to cross a thicket of shrubs along the water. The green heron deliberately moves its head and then, with its prey in sight, strikes the water.

Glossy Ibis and an immature white ibis use tactile feeding to capture their prey, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia. © Jim Clark

Glossy and white ibis: These species don’t pursue their prey, but rather use probing tactile feeding, grabbing the prey when they encounter it.

Just as the wading birds have hunting strategies to catch their prey, nature photographers need a strategy to capture these birds in action. Use a high enough ISO to get a fast shutter speed as the heron strikes the water. Set your camera for continuous shooting and at the fastest frame rate. When you suspect the bird is getting ready to strike, press that shutter and keep firing away!  Even after the egret has captured its prey, you may want to continue photographing as it throws the fish up into the air and then swallows it.  Now that is a defining moment!


35 Feeding Strategies

Here are 35 feeding strategies that wading birds use:

stand and wait bill vibrating underwing feeding hovering stirring head swinging
walking slowly baiting food stirring dipping groping
walking quickly tongue flicking foot raking plunging probing
running standing flycatching foot probing head first diving pecking
hopping gleaning foot paddling swimming feeding stealing
jumping wing flicking foot dragging head swaying prey dropping
leapfrog feeding open wing feeding hovering neck swaying open wing feeding

 


A past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim Clark is a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book Coal Country. Jim’s website is www.jimclarkphoto.com; his blog, www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com; and you can visit him on Facebook.