Stalking a Great Blue

It takes planning to create good images. That was one of the messages in “It’s All About Light.” What follows is a quick “planning” case study and story.

On the morning of 10/15, the outdoor lighting was extraordinary. It met the quality-of-light test and then some. It was one of those mornings. I decided to visit one of my patches, Lakeside Park in Chesapeake, VA. Experience had taught me that I’d find birds there. Experience had also taught me that birds concentrate in these parks the same way migrating birds concentrate in “migrant traps.” Smart bird watchers visit those sometimes postage stamp-sized places in the spring and fall and come up with incredible finds. Smart bird photographers visit city parks like Lakeside year-round and discover opportunities to both to sharpen their skills and create “keepers.”

The Great Blue Heron

When I arrived at the park, it didn’t take long to find birds. But I zeroed in on one in particular: an immature Great Blue Heron. It had been there for days. The bird was along the water’s edge and statue-still. It was also strikingly sidelit as if a stage light were trained on it. Here it is some days earlier. Notice the gray look and dark crown.

Immature Great Blue Heron
Immature Great Blue Heron

The Approach

I approached the bird with my Canon EOS-1D X camera and “big white” 500mm f/4 L IS II lens. This is a great combo for getting close-ups of—while remaining distant from—skittish wildlife. A lens shade was attached to protect the front element, help prevent flare, and provide better contrast. Both lens and shade were covered in a Forest Green LensCoat so they didn’t draw attention.

I approached in a way that I knew wouldn’t disturb the bird—I moved slowly, kept low, and seldom looked the bird’s way. Working one’s way closer while not disturbing and upsetting is another important aspect of fieldcraft.

The Blind

There was a natural blind not far from the heron, and that’s where I headed. That was the plan. The blind consisted of a tall chain-link fence covered with vines, and a number of bushes. Green Herons make good use of the fence during the breeding season. The adult, here, is on the right.

Green Heron parent and offspring
Green Heron parent and offspring

The Shoot

When I reached the blind and the heron was still there, seeming oblivious to my presence, I was relieved. It had begun to move around a bit, often focusing on the water.

I was also ready. I slowly and carefully raised my lens and pressed it against the chain-link to steady it/mitigate camera shake. I took some test shots through a gap in the foliage to make sure my settings were OK (and to make sure the bird couldn’t hear the shutter). I didn’t want to underexpose or overexpose. Then I fired off 40 shots in the space of 5 minutes. I was in burst or continuous shooting mode. I shot in burst to ensure I captured good poses/interesting behavior.

Immature Great Blue Heron
Immature Great Blue Heron
Immature Great Blue Heron
Immature Great Blue Heron

Anyone who has spent time in the field photographing wildlife knows that lighting can change quickly. Nature’s flashes of magic are short-lived; the same holds true for magical light. Shortly after I’d taken the 40 shots, the lighting changed and the spotlight disappeared. But it was still the golden hour (more or less), and the heron was still there.

While I made the mistake of chimping, or examining my LCD screen, the young bird grabbed something in the water. I missed that peak action, but I managed to get this.

Immature Great Blue Heron with a turtle
Immature Great Blue Heron with a turtle

The heron had grabbed a small turtle. But it promptly let it go. That reminded me of a young “YCNH” that did the same thing last year with a piece of wood. Young birds do some interesting things.

Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron

The Endnote

Here’s a photo of the Great Blue a few days later. This time it had speared a fish. It later swallowed it whole. Notice the upper mandible piercing the fish and the lower mandible supporting it.

Immature Great Blue Heron with a fish
Immature Great Blue Heron with a fish

And This Just In

We’ve just seen the 2 ways that Great Blues capture their food. They either use their beaks to grab, or they use their beaks to pierce.

If you haven’t done so already, please read David Lindo’s article on patches, those local, often unsung places where wildlife can be found and enjoyed.

I wrote in “It’s All About Light” that there’s nothing more important when shooting birds than the angle and quality of light. But I omitted something. There’s nothing more important than the angle, quality, and direction of light.

I love the low angle of morning and evening light and the qualities of both. As for direction, I usually shoot with the sun behind me. But I also like side lighting. Having said that, all light is good and it’s fun to experiment.

Canada Goose
Canada Goose

Quip, Question, Quote

“I think it was Louis Pasteur who said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ In photography, this translates to making your own luck by doing research in advance and knowing your subject.” Ralph Lee Hopkins, Wildlife Photographer (

Thanks so much for reading. Please consider leaving a comment below. I respond to every one.

We salute our veterans. This year, the parade was in our hearts (credit: Tony Orlando).

19 thoughts on “Stalking a Great Blue

  1. Reading this was a great way to start my day. I’m not a photographer. I’m a birder from Pittsburgh, and I’ve always loved the safari feel of birding, but also staying still to blend in with the environment so that they come to me. Your photographs here today are beautiful.
    I’ve always too been most interested in birding for colors and shapes and the artistic joy, the adventure
    of birding. I loved the birds of Costa Rica, Ecuador, and New Zealand where I went with Roads Scholar.
    I will check your website for more interesting photos again.


  2. Thanks, Dave. Is a heron’s “piercing” of a fish intentional or an accidental miss when trying to “grab” it? Does it learn the piercing from its parent, or by serendipitous accident the first time, or some other way? After piercing, does it flip the fish into the air and then grab it, or does it slide it off its beak with a foot and then eat it, or someting else?


    1. Wayne, all great questions. Piercing is intentional and probably the best way for a heron to nab a fish (ensures capture). Some other herons do the same thing, BTW. Much bird behavior is innate, but some is learned. Some is learned from parents and sibs, and some is learned “on the job.” I wrote this about young birds in my blog, “Sumer is Agoin Out”: “Though there’s a degree of hard wiring in place, and instinct certainly kicks in, there’s still a learning curve for these youngsters.” I think that sums things up well.
      I don’t know how a pierced fish winds up in a heron’s throat. I never saw how this fish wound up in that bird’s throat. This is behvior I don’t see too often. Hope that helps!


  3. Great shot with the little turtle! I’ve never seen one do that before and couldn’t imagine a heron trying to swallow or digest one. Not surprised it let it go. Very cool! William


  4. Thanks for the photos and insights, Dave. You may think it odd, but the image that really struck me here is the green herons. It’s a great illustration of bird’s legs. It’s not often that you really see the full leg, so this is a useful anatomy lesson. Glad you were prepared for the moments of nice light.


    1. My pleasure, Jean, and happy you enjoyed the piece. That Green Heron photo is one of my favorites. Because we live so close to the colony, I get opportunities to take shots like that. It’s interesting and makes perfect sense that you as an artist would focus in on the bird’s legs.

      Liked by 1 person

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