A Great Blue on the Hunt

June 2, 2015.  Early this morning a red-shouldered hawk is hunting in the muck swamp close to the high boardwalk. I first spot him from the corner of my eye, sailing low through the trees, so low as to actually fly under the boardwalk! He perches nearby on a low limb twelve feet off the ground.  I am a hundred feet away, watching with binoculars. After a few minutes the hawk flies down to the base of a maple tree next to the boardwalk. Unfortunately, it is on the other side of the tree, and I can’t see anything except the tail of the hawk sticking beyond the trunk. It flies off shortly, empty handed, with muddy talons and feet. I walk over and inspect the tree, which has a recessed cavity at its base that looks like a great place for some critter to call home. Unfortunately, I can’t tell what attracted the hawk’s attention; all I know is that it is lucky.

The green frogs, aka bronze frogs, start calling with their banjo repertoire, probably in response to recent rains that have put water back in the muck swamp; soon the Cope’s gray treefrogs join in. The green frogs don’t call long, but the treefrogs keep at it a little longer. This time of year they are apt to call sporadically all day long.

The deer flies are bad as I walk down the Sims Trail. Bad is a relative term since this is nothing compared to being at the Santee Delta in June when the flies can carry you off. But they are still irritating, and I finally resort to a small switch cane branch to shoo them away. This could actually make things worse since deer flies are attracted to motion (and dark colors), but at least it makes you feel like a pro-active victim.

A great blue heron poses for the camera at Tupelo Alley.

At Tupelo Alley a great blue heron is feeding in a shallow pool by the bridge. It is within thirty feet of me and completely oblivious to my presence. The heron’s feeding behavior is interesting: it stands still for long periods of time, erect with its neck in a loose “S”. The pool is small, shallow, fairly clear, and the bird is standing in water up to its “knees” (they are really the heels of its feet). When it finally sees something that gets its attention it stretches its long neck out to the fullest and, if necessary, slow-l-l-y walks toward the object of interest. The heron moves in for the kill by lowering its head down, peering intently into the water, beak poised at the ready just a few inches above water. Then with a quick thrust it hauls its quarry, struggling in its beak, out of the water.

The first victim is a four-inch catfish; the heron drops it but grabs it in its beak before it hits the water. After briefly holding the catfish sideways in its beak, it gets the right purchase and swallows it headfirst (a catfish swallowed tail first could be disastrous for the heron since the fish would be able to expand its sharp pectoral spines and lodge against the heron’s gullet). Afterwards, it scoops up a little water, perhaps as a rinse to flush out the fish slime. I watch the heron for nearly an hour and during this time it grabs another catfish, about three inches long, followed by a three-inch crayfish, which it swallows tail first; then, two small unidentified fish three-to-four inches long; and finally a small crayfish which it drops. All in all, I’d say the heron is eating well with a minimum expenditure of calories.

The big bird finally walks out of the shallow pool and over to the far side of the bridge, where it hops up on the hand rail and poses in the sun for a minute or two. There is a long, slender, black plume that hangs down six inches beyond the black cap of the heron that gives him a really sporting look, as well as a number of plume-like feathers, glistening in the morning sun, that hang down from his neck and add considerably to his beauty.

Referred to as aigrettes, these breeding plumes, especially from white herons and egrets, were highly desirable fashion items for the millinery trade (women’s hats) a century ago. This led to a relentless slaughter of wading bird rookeries that drove some species to the brink of extinction. Modern conservation first started with the protection of wading bird nesting colonies, and to this day the great egret is a symbol of the National Audubon Society.

While watching the heron, which soon flies off into the back end of Weston Lake, I notice a Carolina wren flying back and forth under the bridge. This can only mean a nest, so I look under the bridge and find it, built on top of the bridge cross-beam support, just under the bridge decking. Every day dozens of people are walking literally on top of a wren nest less than two inches under their shoe soles. It never ceases to amaze the weird and strange places these little brown dynamos put their nests.

Lizard tail blooms in late May and early June.

I get back on the Sims Trail and continue walking south to the old clubhouse clearing at the edge of Cedar Creek. Along the way I notice the lizard tail has started blooming in the now-dry depressions and low spots that held standing water a few months ago. Some of these depressions, as well as the trail itself, are littered with the spent catkins of water hickory, which have finally fallen and are perhaps the last reminder of a departing spring.

Wild petunia, Ruellia, in bloom at the old clubhouse clearing.

As I approach the one-acre clearing, I’m always startled at the contrast of the dense canopy I’m leaving behind with the full sun and clear view of the overhead sky I’m about to see. The old opening is gradually being captured by young sweetgum trees and saplings, as well as swamp chestnut oak, elms, and other trees, bushes, and vines. It still has a good bit of interesting herbaceous vegetation rarely found in other parts of the floodplain, primarily because it is a high site that receives full sunlight and rarely floods. Verbena brasiliensis, sometimes called Brazilian vervain, is one such plant; its small purple flowers attract a variety of butterflies. Another wildflower that catches my attention with its attractive lavender blooms is wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis. This plant actually prefers dry upland, sometimes rocky soils.