My season is once again well underway, that mix of kayaking and photography that is uniquely my own, and despite a late start this year I’m making up for lost time, having logged a number of hours – and miles – on the water in the past few weeks while pursuing several projects.
The ubiquitous feature of time on the water in Northeastern Pennsylvania is the company of John the Heron, otherwise known as the Great Blue Heron, or Ardea herodias for the Latin-inclined. He’s made a strong showing already this season – I found at least four individuals within a mile of lake shore in a single morning.
John plays a complex role in my worldview; he is companion and barometer, model & subject, inspiration, and the source of the occasional heart attack.
On nearly every patch of water I visit, from lakes to ponds to the Susquehanna River itself, Great Blue Herons – and often their smaller cousin, Green Herons – are present. Their numbers fluctuate from year to year, sometimes drastically, but they are always present.
When I was first taking an interest in wildlife photography, herons were one of my first subjects. For starters, they are large, which makes them a much easier target for the budding birder than, say, warblers. Herons are also somewhat predictable; you’re going to find them in shallow, still waters where there’s vegetation. That’s their preferred feeding environment, because that’s where their prey – largely fish, but also amphibians and even small crustaceans – lives.
I’ve made dozens of heron photos over the years, and some of my all-time, very best wildlife photos are of herons, such as the Green Heron pictured below. As wildlife goes, herons are often workable, although their tolerance varies by individual.
Some herons have let me approach remarkably close on foot. Many are tolerant of me when I approach via kayak, and some of them remarkably so. Living in state parks, they have likely become used to both people and boats, and realize that we represent less of a threat that way. And some herons remain motionless in the reeds as I paddle by, unaware that they are even there until they suddenly burst into flight with the rustle of large wings and a single, cross “cronk” as they flap away. Hence the occasional heart attack I mentioned before. It’s the aquatic equivalent of flushing a grouse while walking in the woods.
I’ve told the story behind the name John before, but the short recap is this; my dear friend and fellow photographer Paul once knew a man named John Heron. And as Paul shares my affinity and interactions with herons himself, he’s since referred to them all as John the Heron, a trait that I adopted as well after hearing the story.
So John is the name I use when addressing them – “Good morning, John!” as I paddle past.
But aside from their value as friends and models, I also just John in a semi-scientific role; in my mind, the presence of herons is indicative as to the health of the aquatic environment itself.
A lake with an abundance of herons hunting or even nesting is generally a healthy lake. There is sufficient habitat for them to live and co-exist without undue competition, which means that there’s also plentiful prey species to sustain them. By the same token, a lake without herons makes me raise an eyebrow and wonder what’s wrong.
But I doubt you’ll find that kernel of wisdom in any ecology textbooks; it’s just a personal rule of thumb, and like all such rules there are exceptions. A few years back there was a season where John was conspicuously absent. Whereas I saw four individuals within three hours last weekend, I may only have seen three herons all summer.
I don’t know the reason behind it; poor nesting season? Mass illness and die-off among the species? Migration issues? Lack of sufficient food at their usual summer sites? No clear cause became clear to me throughout that season, but their absence left a hole.
This season seems like a good one for John and his ilk. I’ve found him at Lackawanna and out on the Susquehanna, and he’s already found himself in front of my lens. Despite all the photos I have, I still can’t resist taking a shot when the opportunity presents itself. After all, no good photographer turns down a willing model!