Birders have to follow through on the blotches in the distance.
Usually they end up being plastic bags or Mylar balloons stuck in trees, odd-looking knots on tree trunks or some other strange objects that look out of place. Sometimes, though, they end up being birds, which is why we birders have to do our diligence.
One summer morning while canoeing at Pillsbury State Park, I was excited to see a great horned owl sitting at the edge of the pond. Strange place for a great horned owl, I thought as I continued to slowly paddle in for a closer look.
I closed the distance substantially, and the owl remained at the pond’s edge, looking right at me. I slowly got my camera ready and continued drifting toward the large bird. I lifted the camera to my face and zoomed in, ready to capture my best owl images to date.
As I zoomed in I realized something rather embarrassing. My great horned owl was actually the top of a dead tree at the edge of the pond. This tree was a dead ringer for an owl, complete with ear tufts, eyes and rounded body.
I laughed out loud and was thankful no one else was around to witness my buffoonery.
My stories of mistaking plastic grocery bags for hawks along highway roads are practically endless. Mylar balloons are another oft-seen “bird” in the trees.
Last week, though, I was rewarded by following through on a blotch in the distance. It didn’t turn out to be a rarity or a new bird for me, but it was nice just the same to have a blotch actually turn out to be a bird — a black-crowned night heron, to be exact.
I was driving along one side of a pond in southern Connecticut when I stopped at a stop sign to turn right, away from the pond. As I glanced left to check for oncoming cars, I noticed something gray and upright at the far edge of the pond. I figured it was a stick or large piece of trash. I turned right and started driving away from the pond, but the possibility of the object actually being a bird kept nagging at me.
I hit the brakes, found the next safe place to turn around and returned to the pond. A stone wall prevented me from seeing the edge of the pond where I had previously seen the object. I parked, walked to the pond and found the black-crowned night heron standing in the same exact spot where I had seen it before.
I watched it for a couple of minutes as it stood deadly still, as all waders are so adept at doing. Finally it took two slow, careful steps and plunged its bill into the water. It pulled out a painted turtle and immediately returned the prey to the water.
I grabbed a few photographs — they all turned out lousy as the bird was in a heavily shaded area — and started to return to the car when something else caught my eye. It was a big white object on the far side of the pond. I knew immediately that this object was a great egret, not just a blotch.
As I walked toward the egret, I wondered how I missed it the first time I had driven by the pond. I stood behind a tree watching the impressive white bird stalk the pond’s edge as it lunged its head into the water. The egret caught a small sunfish — much easier prey for a bird to handle than a turtle — and adjusted the fish in its bill before finishing the meal.
I’ve seen plenty of black-crowned night herons and great egrets in my life, but I was happy to see the birds that day. I was glad my instincts paid off and convinced me to turn the car around.
Actually seeing real birds made up for a few of those plastic bag “bird” sightings that I’ve had over the years.