Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


The Great Blue Heron and the Catfish (with Video!)

Note: If you do nothing else, check out the videos at the very bottom before leaving!!

What a day! A two post day for sure.

The morning started off with an entertaining and educational tour of the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, NC (blog post to follow).

Next, my wife and I were off to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, where I had a birding opportunity heretofore unprecedented for me.

Duke Gardens is a massive cross between city park and botanical garden, sprawling with trails and ponds and happy people. My goal was to simply find some interesting natural wonders to photograph, as it's been a while since the weather has allowed me to partake in my outdoor hobby.

We began at a nice looking little pond where my eyes became drawn to a set of cypress knees under a beautiful sun.

For oxygen or support? The jury is still out...

For oxygen or support? The jury is still out...

After snapping a few shots, I looked way across the pond and saw a Great Blue Heron patiently fishing. I've photographed many herons - in fact, I had previously considered my coolest heron spotting as last summer when one let me get within about 15 feet. Normally in the wild, I've found that blue herons get rather irritated when a human passes too closely, letting you know quite vocally before taking flight that you've mucked up their fishing.  If you've heard their loud angry squawk, then you know exactly what I mean. If you use your imagination you can almost hear the word "asshole!" escape their beaks as they take off.

If only I could get closer...

If only I could get closer...

I have a decent (non-professional) camera - so the above image was taken with 12x optical zoom - further than it looks.

Immediately after getting this shot, a couple of kids approached the heron and started throwing bread at it.

"Damn," I think, "now they're gonna scare it away."  I look over at my wife, shaking my head. "They don't even eat bread!"

But the big bird doesn't move. In fact, he gets closer to the the kids and begins staring at the water where the bread floats by. The heron had become completely acclimated to people! (note: I'm using "he" but herons are not sexually dimorphic, so I have no idea its gender)

"I've got to get over there to get some pictures - mind if I run ahead?" I ask my wife, as I begin sprinting down the trail around the far side of the pond - just knowing that the bird will be gone by the time I get there.

It was my lucky day - it was still there!

I immediately (and slowly) perched about 15 feet away and started shooting.



See the arrow? (S)he let me get that close!

See the arrow? (S)he let me get that close!

I decided to test his comfort zone limits and slowly moved to the arrow in the above image.

He still remained statuesque. In fact, the kids continued to thrown bread into the water, even pelting him a couple of times. At this point it became quite clear that this bird had learned to use human behavior as fish bait.  He stared intently directly over the floating bread, waiting for any fish to nibble.

This went on for ten minutes (no fish), so I just began taking as many cool shots that I could.

No sexual dimorphism?

No sexual dimorphism?

Blue Heron Feathers

Baby got back!

You know I can stab you with this, right?

You know I can stab you with this, right?

Next I took a quick video of this beautiful bird.

And then - for the climactic ending.

I was in the middle of setting up for another shot when the heron lunged into the water in about a third of a second! I immediately tried to switch to video mode as quickly as possible, which took about two seconds.

THIS is what followed:

Truly amazing!

I was a bit sad to have missed recording the actual capture - but hey - how much can I really complain after witnessing it myself AND getting all these cool shots.

As an aside, after this event we went to watch "Coraline 3D" (an insanely creative movie by the way). This required wearing special polarized glasses.

Which got me thinking - any fisherman knows the value of a good pair of polarized glasses for reducing surface glare. Do herons and other fishing birds have polaroid filters in their eyes? I found one mention that this is the case in the abstract of a paper from 1973, but I haven't absolutely confirmed this.

And finally - check out this video of a green heron actually fishing with a piece of bread - utterly astonishing behavior!

Comments (14) Trackbacks (2)
  1. Dude, those videos are awesome! I love the Duke Gardens, did you get to see the carnivorous plants?

  2. Fantastic! I witnessed something similar about 8 years ago at Green Lake in urban Seattle and the memory is still vivid. That last clip of the fishing heron is just awesome, too. There’s so much we still don’t know…

  3. Wow! Great job! What luck he was so acclimated. You can go back and try to find him again for more photo ops in the future. I love the gigantic catfish in his mouth. I bet those feathers are good protection against the catfish barbs. The last video was hilarious. Sounded like my grandfather narrating “That clever little bird”

  4. GREAT photos, as always! Every time I see your photos, it makes me want to move down to the Carolinas. *Sigh*

    Anyway, I tagged you in my Science Lover’s Book Meme because I would love to see what books you would recommend!

  5. That is SO AWESOME. Barry and I were at a local nature park last week and we ended up about 10 ft from a crew of river otters – but, we’d forgotten the camera :(.

    I really love the last video. That’s so smart of that bird!!

  6. Great Video! (S)he’s going to have a time getting that catfish down!

    • I actually did a bit of background research before posting this and apparently Great Blue Herons typically swallow their meals whole. In fact, they have been known to choke and die when their eyes are bigger than their bellies.

      I don’t know – but that catfish just might be over that limit, depending on how elastic its throat and mouth are…

  7. Totally awesome Daniel! I would have snapped at least 250 shots of the Great Blue Heron! And the video is super. I thought it looked like a rather large catch for that guy too. Great captures!

    The Green Heron video at the end just blew me away. I never heard of herons fishing like that.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Larry!

      I did end up with quite a few images. If only I had an SLR/DSLR professional camera with all the high tech lens doohickies and capabilities. But I make do…

      As for the green heron video from YouTube – I was a bit stunned. I’ve never seen anything like it really (at least not from a heron).

      I personally think (as a non-professional in behavioral science) that it shows alot more than just instinctive or even learned behavior. From my view, it looks pretty clear that there is a fairly high level of problem solving and anticipatory (future-predicting) thinking going on in that little guy’s brain.

      I hope (S)he had lots of babies! Spread those smarts around!

  8. Awesome pictures! I have the pleasure of watching Herons across the local lake. But they always stay on the other side and binoculors just don’t bring them in as wonderfully as your photos did. LOVE the videos! Thank you!

  9. AMAZING Shots! My first time here, c/o MG from Oyster’s Garter – great work on the banner BTW.

    • Good to see you here! Not sure if you remember, but we talked a couple of times at ScienceOnline09.

      And thanks re: Miriam’s banner!

      Drop back by anytime… :)

  10. Now that I see your pic, yes I remember meeting and talking with you. I had you so tied to CoE, it slipped my mind you have a primary blog.

    How are things going? I really like your page.

    Have you heard about the Diversity in Science Blog Carnival? It’s brand new and inspired by SO’09. The purpose of the carnvial to celebrate the people of science. With this month being Black History Month, the inaugural Edition is all about Black innovators and scientists. If you’re interested, let me know.

    Here is the submission link: