HomePublicationsThe Tracker MagazineVol 4, No. 1, 1985

The Tracker Magazine - Vol 4 No. 1, 1985

Watching a Master Stalker
by Becca Harber

As I passed the pond near my cabin this sunny September day, a bird flew out from the grassy bank and into the maple on the other side. A duck - my first thought - and I greeted it, not having seen ducks before at this pond, so frequently visited by people during the summer swimming weather. But odd, I thought, that it flew into a tree. Later, I walked up the same way, quietly this time, wanting to get a better look at this "duck". As I came through the high goldenrods out onto the grassy pond perimeter, I moved slowly, scanning the pond edge for the bird. There it was, at the opposite end where the recently receding water ends on gravelly mud and an old board raft sits, almost now on dry land but with enough water underneath so the little fish can still hang out there, a favorite spot of theirs.

As I approached, I saw that this was no duck. Its shape was distinctive and jogged my memory, A heron! Yes. Needing to get a letter in the box before the mailman came, I kept walking, and when I was near, the heron flew into a tree, its long reddish brown neck stretching out and its blackish blue crest up. It uttered a rough, rattly call. I want to go back and watch this heron fish, I decided.

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So I did. When I slowly returned, sitting in the shadows of the black locust, fishing was exactly what the heron was doing. I soon learned that its posture was an indicator of what was about to happen. When it stood upright, striped neck clearly showing and held vertically, blue-gray back with a shine to it, no fish was about to be caught. Eventually, it moved, almost imperceptibly to my eyes, more used to larger or more sudden movements, so that now it was in a horizontal stance: head, neck, and back in one line. As I accustomed I myself to noticing the oh-so-slow and flowing movement of the heron changing from vertical to horizontal postures, I could sense the tension and attention embodied in this motion. Then, from the heron being parallel to the ground, still with head held close to the body, it would gradually partially extend its neck in a downward tilt. Like before, I could feel a tension, this time like a bow being drawn, with the bird's yellow eyes looking, it seemed to me, where its beak was pointing. Suddenly, in a sharp jab, it struck into the water, and I saw a shine of silver in the sunlight flip-flopping from the heron's beak before it disappeared in a swallow. The heron serenely resumed its lookout for more fish, standing vertically once again.

Whatever the heron did, I saw that it rarely moved in an abrupt fashion. Once in a while it would shake its head and beak before settling into an immobile stance, usually at the land's edge in the shadows of the grasses and forbs covering the bank. Gradually, the heron made its way along the water's edge, heading away from me. Again, I had to pay close attention to even notice how it was moving, for it moved so slowly and fluidly. What an excellent teacher for how to stalk, I thought. It would have all its weight on one leg, and then slowly pick up the other leg with its big-toed foot, raising it up and placing it ahead, all in a steady flowing movement. Then the other foot would step, and in this calm, hardly noticeable manner, this hunter moved from one fishing spot to the next, body eventually going horizontal, then dipping forward more, the tension building, and in another well-aimed surge, out went the head and neck and another fish flashing sunshine would be caught and eaten. I only saw the heron miss once during the time I watched it catch about ten fish.

When it had gotten to the farther raft end of the pond, I slowly crawled through the short green grass whenever the strong breeze blew, loudly rustling the trees and plants, and stopping often so as not to startle the bird. When I had a good view again, by a rose bush, I sat and watched some more. I wondered whether it's possible to keep watching a heron, so slow and poised, without becoming calm and focused oneself, which was how I felt.

What I thought was a day's visit turned out to be an almost three week stay by this bird, who soon grew used to my presence as I openly sat by the water watching, writing, or reading while it fished. I was thankful for the fact that my various neighbors are creatures of habit and rarely go to the pond except to swim, and now that days were much cooler, the heron and I had this lovely place to ourselves.

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