When I first attempted to shoot blue herons I was in for a little surprise. These large, elegant birds pay attention to their surroundings and will take off if they feel threatened at all. That is why at first I thought that a decent photo of them was hard to come by. I have since learned to adapt and they are now one of my favorite subjects to photograph.
The first time I spotted a great blue heron was during a vacation when film was cheap and plentiful and ruled photography. I had just purchased a 500mm prime lens and was eager to try it out. The heron was standing in the shallow water of some lake whose name I have long forgotten, fishing. In my excitement I scrambled to get the proper angle and tried to get as close as possible. Suffice to say that the bird noticed my approach and took off.
Several years later I was kayaking on Eaglet Lake east of Prince George. Pelicans had been spotted on the lake and I wanted to get some photos of them. Armed with my first digital camera with a 20x zoom lens (in retrospect a waste of money) I set out toward the end of the lake where the pelicans were staying. Along the way I spotted a blue heron sitting on a deadhead in a shallow bay on the south side of the lake. Anxious to try the capabilities of my new acquisition I steered the kayak toward the heron. Proceeding at a slow, cautious pace I took pictures all the way. The heron was grooming itself and stopped only occasionally to give me a short glance. Apparently I was no threat to it. I managed to get within 10 meters of the bird without it flying away. I started paddling in reverse and when I finally turned the corner the bird had not moved from its spot. I moved on to photograph the Pelicans before returning home. While all photos from this outing came out very poor due to the quality of the camera, the same technique came in handy some years later.
Since my first encounter I always saw blue herons but was unable to get a decent photo of the skittish birds with the exception on Eaglet Lake. The story was always the same: I saw them, they saw me approaching and before I knew it they were airborne flying in the opposite direction and I was almost ready to give up on these magnificent birds. Then, finally, something good happened: I was out for a walk when I watched a heron swoop in, made a loop and landed approximately 20 meters away from me. I did not dare to move. I readied my camera and got ready to shoot. The bird was walking in the shallow water along the shoreline and did not seem to be intimidated by my presence at all. For the first time I saw all the details of its plumage: the fine feathers on its front, back and head. In fact I came so close that I could take headshots without any difficulty. Perhaps the heron was used to people and did not fear them. It turned out to be a great day. Since that day I did not have too much difficulty to get great shots of blue herons. I shot them in flight or feeding in the shallow water for fish and crustaceans. I have seen them high up in trees and sitting on deadheads in the middle of a river or pool. On one occasion I have watched as a blue heron was perched precariously on the very top of spruce tree. It clung to the skinniest of branches, which was bending under the bird’s weight quite severely. The half-moon was high in the sky and the heron, with its neck contorted in an elegant arch, was looking at it, perhaps wondering what it was or how to get there. This went on for a while. Then the bird decided that it was time to leave. It leapt into the air spreading its wings and headed straight for me. I could not believe my luck. I squeezed off a number of frames and captured an awkward looking creature until it had garnered enough speed. By that time he was almost right above me and I lost it from my view.
Another time I encountered a heron in flight. He was gliding low over the water using the “ground effects” to his advantage with his large wings. The light was quite poor with some occasional rays of sun making it through the clouds. I noticed one such spot ahead in the bird’s flight pass and got ready. The shots turned out quite good. The bird also did something else for me: it extended its head forward as it made one of its throaty “ahk-ahk” calls in mid flight. At that moment it reminded me of pictures of flying dinosaurs I had seen many years before. And the photos turned out quite nice too.
But the most memorable encounter occurred while I was out kayaking. As I paddled along the shoreline I noticed two herons fishing in close proximity to each other. It was early in the morning and the light was not quite what I wanted it to be. But I had never encountered two herons at once and I did not want to loose this opportunity. So I readied my camera and I started drifting with the prevailing current slowly closer toward the birds. One of the birds kept moving along the shoreline looking for food while the other one stayed pretty much in the same spot fishing. It did not take long until both birds noticed each other and that was when the posturing began. Necks stretched as far as they could and wings spread to appear larger than life they kept slowly approaching each other. Seeing that the posturing did not work the two adversaries headed onto land, one behind the other. The heron, which was behind launched the first attack, but the first one was ready for him. Performing an evasive manoeuver it jumped up, spreading its wings and completing a half turn at the same time, confronting the attacker. It now occupied the high ground and started immediately to press its advantage. The attacker retreated for a little bit only to turn, jump up and try to get an advantage over its adversary. But, as it often happens, the bird was ready for the second attack. Still holding the high ground it jumped even higher, spread its wings wider and pressed its advantage for the second time. This time the attacker had had enough: it folded its wings, turned and flew some distance along the shoreline from where it had come before landing with a big splash. The victor wasted no time and postured again toward the attacker before resuming fishing. For my part I captured the whole escapade and, despite the poor light, most of the photos turned out ok.
While I took most of my blue heron photos on Vancouver Island, I have noticed that the heron population has increased in the Prince George area lately. Don’t get me wrong: herons have been in the area all along but they seem to appear more visible nowadays. It all started after I spotted one lone heron sitting on the ice of the Nechako River one cool February morning not too long ago. Since then I took several photos of herons in Cottonwood Park. And, after I purchased a new lens which I wanted to try out, I spotted some “tree stumps” just upstream from the Cottonwood Park parking lot. Turned out that, after zooming in on the scene, the “tree stumps” turned out to be four blue herons in fairly close proximity to each other. I have since spotted herons on several occasions in that location and will keep my eye out for them in the future.
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