Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Life at the edge of the water

Friends hangin' out. I love to walk along the Lake Chapala shore, camera in hand, capturing images of our wildlife as the animals move about, swim, fly, and feed in their own little piece of paradise. Sometimes, like the egrets above, they simply stand still, seeming just to enjoy the quiet beauty of sparkling water and golden sun all around them. These two egrets are among some of the most common birds along the shore. They look alike, except for their size, and pairs like this can often be seen together, leading to the mistaken impression that they are mates. When I finally got around to preparing this posting, I decided to find out a little more and, to my surprise, I discovered that they are entirely different species, although they are both part of the overall heron family. The large bird is the Great White Egret, while its smaller friend is the Snowy Egret. Aside from the size difference, they can be distinguished by the color of their beaks, and by the yellow feet of the Snowy Egret (not visible in the picture).

Prime egret real estate. Unlike some of the other local water-oriented birds, which swim and fish some distance off shore, the egrets like the edge of the water. They perch on a ledge or wade with their long spindly legs at the edge of the floating water hyacinth gathered along the shore such as that found at the intersection of the Ajijic pier and the seawall protecting the lake front park shown above. In these areas they find small fish, water snakes and insects.

Fishing buddies. Another pair of egrets fishes off the seawall of the lake front park. Once again, a Great White and a Snowy Egret have paired up. I may be misunderstanding the interaction, but it certainly appeared that the Great White was giving a few fishing tips to its smaller buddy. These two stayed together for some time, with the Great White uncoiling its long neck and peering into the shallow depths, while the Snowy Egret observed the action closely. Because they were so concentrated on their project, I was able to get rather close to take the picture.

Score one for the egret. A Great White Egret has captured a small water snake at the edge of the water hyacinth. Now the task is to position the snake so that the egret can tilt back its head and swallow it, a maneuver that the egret will find surprisingly difficult.

Now what? The snake fights back, wrapping its body around the egret’s beak, preventing the swallowing maneuver. I wonder if this is an example of what is known as a “Mexican Stand-off?” I took these shots with a telephoto lens, and didn’t see clearly what was going on until I put them on the computer and zoomed in close. I was instantly reminded of the old cartoon, titled “Never give up!” In the cartoon is a frog, half-swallowed by a pelican, which reaches out with its front paws and throttles the bird, preventing the pelican from swallowing, creating a similar Mexican Stand-off.

A breezy afternoon on the waterfront. A cool breeze ruffles the feathers of this Snowy Egret. Another way of distinguishing the Snowy from the Great White is the tuft of feathers along the back of the neck. Also, although it has a similar s-curve, the neck is much shorter than that of a Great White. The Snowy does have the same beady-eyed intensity of its larger cousin as this one surveys its turf for lunch.

Friendly competitors. Some of the other birds I found with egrets include these seagulls and a solitary Blue Heron. Oregonians will recognize the Blue Heron from the label on the bottle of the local brew pub ale they may be quaffing even as they read this. Although we can’t get the ale this far south, at least we do get the bird.

Big Blue. The Blue Heron looks very similar to the Great White Egret, except for the color. They are related, but apparently not as closely as the Snowy Egret. The Blue Heron’s feathers are a variety of colors, in addition to blue. I may well have seen this very bird wading in the creek behind my former home in Salem, Oregon.

Up and away. When the Great White takes off, unfolding and flapping its broad wings with rhythmic grace, it is breath taking. The white feathers show their translucency in the afternoon sun. The egret holds its neck and legs in the most aerodynamically advantageous position and simply soars.

Into the distance. The egret glides along just above the water, taking advantage of air currents as it looks for fish. The volcanic mountains lining the south shore of Lake Chapala show in the background. Because human settlement is much less intense along the south shore, the bird population is reported to be much greater. Soon, I will visit Petatan on the south shore to see the mobs of white pelicans that gather at the fishing village when the catch is cleaned.

Liquid gold. A solitary egret wades and fishes as the late afternoon sunlight turns the water to liquid gold. The egret’s long neck, extended from its usual s-curve to full length, gives the bird a great visual advantage for both hunting and defense.

For more detailed information about egrets and herons, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I just got home in the dark, cold and wet. I am very grateful to see light, warmth, and another, more agreeable version of wet. These ARE recent photos, right? What's the temperature?


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