Sometimes, Once Is Enough

Roseate spoonbill at Olney Pond
(click for greater clarity)

The morning seemed unusually quiet. At the edge of Olney Pond, a single spoonbill stirred the water, swinging its bill with a pendulum-like rhythm: shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish; shrimp, fish. Glossy ibis, long-billed and svelte, picked over their sandbar like latecomers to brunch. Only the stilts, hidden among the rushes and reeds, shredded the silence with their sharp, clean yips of warning and complaint.

In the rising heat, clouds bubbled and built before bending to the will of the winds. Distracted by their shifting shapes, I barely noted the soft, muted sound behind me. Then, I heard it again: the sound of a pillowcase being snapped and shaken out before being pinned to a clothesline.

While considering the possibilities — Alligator? Hunter? Frogs? — I heard the sound again: closer this time, and more resonant. Suddenly, with a fluttering of wings and loud, croaking cries, a great egret dressed in breeding plumage landed at the edge of the pond.

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He wasn’t alone. A second egret landed, and then a third. For several minutes they appraised one another, as if comparing feathers. Then, without warning, the last of the group to arrive rose straight into the air: his strong, slow wing beats re-creating the snapping sound I’d heard.

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Remarkably, the egret didn’t fly off as I expected, but hovered above my head like a dragonfly or hummingbird: dangling his legs and spreading his wings forward as if to slow his momentum.

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Only feet above the ground, he began calling in flight: perhaps announcing his presence, or issuing a challenge to the other birds.

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Alternately perplexed, entranced, and mystified, I watched the bird continue his show: rising up, circumscribing his patch of sky, then falling back toward earth to hover again, as though suspended by a wire. 

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Tucking and fanning his feathers, the bird seemed a sky-set jewel: impossibly beautiful, and utterly self-possessed.

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When he straightened himself at last, setting a course for the horizon and disappearing from sight, nothing remained but the soft swish of the spoonbill, and the silence of the pond. The performance might never have happened.

It did happen, of course, and I had seen it — but what had I seen?

With breeding plumage as a clue, I began exploring heron mating rituals, and discovered that displays designed to attract females often involve flight. In his discussion of heron courtship, James Kushlan notes:

Circle flights start from the colony, travel around, through, over and beyond the colony sites and return to about the same place. Herons dangle their feet, call, raise their crest, cut about in curious curves and zigzags, and make species-characteristic flapping noises on slow wing beats.
These sounds are rendered as “whomp, whomp,” and the display is frequently called a flap flight.

The behavior typifies several species, including the Eastern great egret: Ardea alba modesta. A white heron widely distributed throughout Asia and Oceania, the bird is plentiful in Australia, but uncommon in New Zealand.

First described as a New Zealand species by British ornithologist John Edward Gray in 1831, its only known nesting site lies on the West Coast of  South Island, along the banks of the Waitangiroto Stream, north of Okarito Lagoon. The lagoon, a few miles from the sea, is home to about thirty pairs of white herons which return each year to breed, primarily in the crowns of tree ferns over-hanging the river, under tall kahikatea forest.

New Zealand tree ferns ~ Photo by Steven Schwartzman (click image for his original posting)

The Okarito heronry has remained an isolated breeding ground since its discovery by pioneer surveyor Gerhard Mueller in December, 1865. While exploring the Waitangiroto Stream, he found between fifty and sixty birds, and described them in a letter to his wife. In time, word of the birds’ presence began to spread, and their significance to Māori culture began to be documented.

Feathers of the white heron always have been prized by Māori chiefs. Each carries a specific name: whaitiripapa for the larger plumes; hikurangi for the extreme wing feathers; tatara, titapu, kapu, and kira for still others.

New Zealand’s white heron ~ the Kotuku

Because of their importance as ritual objects, Māori women weren’t allowed to wear the more highly-prized plumes; doing so was said to lead to baldness, and subsequent ridicule. If a man wearing heron plumes was included in a group of men sharing a meal, no woman could join the group, unless the plume-wearer removed his decoration. 

Ironically, it was women who nearly put an end to the plumes, and to the birds that provided them. When the beautiful feathers became fashionable additions to women’s hats, the species nearly was exterminated to satisfy the demand. By 1941, only four nests remained at the New Zealand rookery. Finally, in 1949, the establishment of the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve and the implementation of patrols during the breeding season helped to stabilize the population, although it remains small, with only 100-150 birds.

From mid-September until early March, the herons at the Okarito sanctuary busy themselves with mating, breeding, and chick-raising. Then they disperse, spending the autumn and winter months in harbors and estuaries, freshwater wetlands, lakes, and outlying islands.

During their time away from Okarito, they remain solitary: rarely seen except by those who seek them out.  Such infrequent sightings gave rise to the Māori proverb, “Rare as the Kotuku,” and the lovely, descriptive phrase, Te kotuku rerenga tahi — variously translated as “the magical bird of a single flight,” “the heron of one flight,” or “the white heron that flies singly.” Because sighting the Kotuku can be a once-in-a-lifetime event, such encounters are considered good fortune for anyone granted the privilege.

Deeply embedded in Māori culture, the Kotuku often is referred to metaphorically. The phrase Te kotuku rerenga tahi may apply to the visit of a distinguished visitor: the guest who rarely comes. It also is used as a compliment, since likening someone to Kotuku is to suggest that they, too, are rare and beautiful.

The bird itself may be described as He kotuku kai-whakaata: that is, the heron that leisurely examines its food before eating — a “bird of dainty habit.” In contrast, the duck is described as He parera apu paru — “a duck that gobbles up the mud.”  In Māori society, a person who waits politely for others to arrive before eating is likened to the Kotuku, while a greedy, impolite, or impatient person is like the mud-gobbling duck.

More significantly, Kotuku are thought to be inhabitants of the netherworld: messengers from the the spirit land of Reinga. An old Māori funeral chant, as beautiful as the heron itself, ends with the words, Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama e — “Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son.”

Here on the Texas coast, “common as the Kotuku” might seem a more apt expression than “rare as the Kotuku.” With so many great egrets standing watch in marinas, patrolling estuaries, and roosting together along urban bayous, their presence in our world seems ubiquitous. They’re an easy bird to take for granted or ignore: some consider them pedestrian.

Still, the world of these birds is not our world, and surprises abound. On any given day, from the edge of any unnamed pond or half-hidden ditch, there always is the possibility that beauty and grace will rise up: tumbling into the sky; falling more softly than feathers; and granting a vision of Kotuku, the magical bird of a single flight.

Te kotuku rerenga tahi ~ E. Mervyn Taylor (1906-1964)
Christchurch Art Gallery (click image for gallery page)

Comments always are welcome.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, are mine, and were taken at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. More information about the white heron can be found at New Zealand Birds Online.

109 thoughts on “Sometimes, Once Is Enough

  1. Magnificent photos! Especially that egret in flight. I’ll be heading to TIFF tomorrow, and yes, bringing my camera. So hopefully I’ll have a chance to see some birds I haven’t seen before this side of the country… like, all the birds you’ve presented here. Looks like you’re really enjoying your camera. :)

    1. I came across some publicity photos from TIFF today, and wondered if you’d left yet. I know you’ll enjoy yourself, and I’m looking forward to your photos and reviews once you’re back home. I hope you do see some different birds there. I know so little about birding in Canada, but this page shows several of our herons and egrets, and has a photo of a great egret that was taken in September. Promising, I’d say!

      I’m glad you like the photos. The egret photos truly were examples of being at the right place, at the right time — and for once looking around, instead of fiddling with the camera.

      Safe travels, Arti — and have fun.

  2. Oh Linda, I am in awe of your magnificent photos. And the writing — it gives me such a sense of awe. It’s almost as though I am standing there with you, very quietly, wondering what is going on. And then — that breathtaking moment.

    The background is all so interesting, too. Kotuku. I wonder — Harry feels like Kotuku to me. Whether blue or white, the heron is my magnificent bird — and yet, your big white bird is most dazzling, the most dazzling.

    Thank you for this one, Linda.

    1. Jeanie, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate about wildlife photography is that a good bit of time has to be spent just standing around, waiting and watching. In that sense, I suppose the herons and egrets would be good models for us. You know, from watching Harry, how silent and still they can be, even over long periods of time.

      I think, over the years, Harry clearly has demonstrated Kotuku-like qualitites. If the Māori can liken important human visitors to Kotuku, then how much more deserving is a great blue heron?

      One thing is certain. The wonders of the world aren’t all “out there” or “over there.” New Zealand clearly is a stunning country, but I could travel there and still not witness what I saw right here at home.

      1. You are so right about that — traveling is grand but home has its gifts and treasures and it’s wise to remember that one! I haven’t seen Harry much this season — mostly because I’ve been away and when I’ve been here he seems to be elsewhere. Maybe a twilight walk is in better order for me next time!

  3. What a magnificent flight I have been on with this post; across the oceans and back again. Your photos are as elegant as the heron itself, and you chose one of my favourites from Steve’s NZ portfolio.

    1. Of course I thought of you while writing this. I was especially surprised to find that Okarito is so near to you. As I prowled around maps of the area, and travel articles, everything from the mountains (the Alps!?) to the rivers and lagoons was a revelation. And it was fun to browse artwork in Christchurch museums and galleries to find a suitable image: although it would be far more enjoyable to fly over to NZ and have you as an afternoon’s companion.

      I was delighted to be able to use Steve’s photo of the tree ferns. When I read about Kotuku’s nesting habits, I remembered his post immediately. I never imagined at the time that I’d find a use for it in one of my own posts.

        1. Oh, I don’t think so. On the other hand, I do know quite a bit more about the Okarito lagoon than I ever imagined I would — not to mention how many different spellings there can be of geographical features in your country. I didn’t have a clue how to sort all that out (Waitangiroto? or Waitangi Roto?) so I just went for consistency.

          1. Ah……it seems we are both on the same page with different spellings. My next post (due this weekend, I hope) pertains to many things but one of them is the subject of different spellings! I live here and I am confused despite wading my way through several articles on place names.

  4. Yes, add me to those who love your stunning bird. The tree picture is gorgeous. Is the picture at the end a wood cut? I have a book by Lynd Ward called “God’s Man” in which the story is told by woodcut pictures – no words. Copyright 1929 November; mine is second printing in December, 1929

    1. It is a wood block print, Oneta. Here’s a link for the artist’s information that shows it in a slightly larger size.

      I was going to say I didn’t know the work of Lynd Ward, but when I took at look at his illustrations, they seemed immediately familiar. There’s a hint of Thomas Hart Benton in his work, but I also think a painter I follow might have included examples of his work in a blog entry. In any event, I found this interesting article that you might enjoy, too.

    1. No, they breed from March-August here, too. I’m not sure exactly when the photos were taken, because I don’t always pay attention to details when I should — I haven’t set the date and time on my camera yet. (I *will* do that tonight!)

      What I do know is that the photos were taken in May — just at the height of the showing-off season. I went to the pond about two weeks ago, and found plenty of juvenile green herons, and the little blue herons halfway through the process of turning from white to blue-gray. On the other hand, I found a yellow-crowned night heron on Labor Day weekend, still sporting his plumes. Maybe he just was showing off to the egrets.

      1. You have a nice selection. You’ve given me a chuckle, too. My computer is under the impression that it is 7:51, my stereo thinks it is 2:25, and my wall clock has stopped altogether. But I changed my ceiling light fixture! This makes me sound like a disorganized mess but the truth is I just don’t care what time it is.

        1. I’ve made certain changes in my life and my commitments that now require a calendar and greater attention to being “on time.” After twenty-five years of working by the sun and weather, this is turning into more of a challenge than I’d expected. I function primarily with the clocks in the computer and the car, and, when necessary, I’ll take my (old flip) phone to work with me so I can keep track of the time. Otherwise? The sun rises, the sun falls.

  5. It’s excellent that you were able to get so many good pictures of a great egret in flight. Nice going.

    I didn’t have to wait long to find out the connection to New Zealand. It’s something I was unaware of during my visit there.

    1. It certainly helped that he was staying in essentially the same space, as it made it much easier to track his movements. I used one photo from the set for “The Poets’ Birds: Egrets,” but I’ve just been sitting on the others since, trying to find a way to communicate the experience.

      When you posted your photo of the great egret in the dead tree, I had all I could do to keep from saying, “Well, yes — but do you know where they roost in New Zealand?” I really do enjoy seeing how these creatures adapt to such different environments.

        1. On this page, it shows that A.modesta sometimes is considered a full species, and sometimes a sub-species. There’s a reference to its taxonomic status in the upper right corner.

          I can’t find it now, but I did come across a couple of articles that mentioned dissension in the ranks of ornithologists over how to categorize it. I found references to A. modesta, but just as many to Ardea alba modesta.

          What I never found was a description of differences. Everything I read about the NZ heron’s behavior and appearance suggested differences from ours would be so slight as to be negligible.

          This did tickle me:

          “The scientific and common names for the Great Egret have changed over time. The genus, especially, has changed and the bird, which was known as Casmerodius alba or Egretta alba, is now known as Ardea alba.

          In addition to multiple scientific names, there have been many common names, including “American Egret,” “Common Egret,” “Large Egret,” “White Egret,” and “Great White Egret.” It is sometimes called “Great White Heron,” but this is incorrect because the Great White Heron is actually a white morph of the larger Great Blue Heron. While this bird’s official common name in North America is now Great Egret, be prepared for anything!”

          Oh, taxonomy!

          1. At the rate the biological classifications keep changing, if we tax taxonomy we can pay off the national debt (okay, not really, with every American currently owing about $60,000).

            Look at all those yummy foreign names for the bird in your first link.

            When I did the first version of my recent great egret post I put Casmerodius because that’s the genus Tveten has in his Texas bird book. Then I got reminded that it’s been changed to Ardea.

            1. Interesting that you mention the Tvetens. I also picked up their “Butterflies of Houston and SE Texas” at the bookstore the other day. I’ve only leafed through it, but I was surprised by how much more appealing the photography is. I finally decided it’s because most of the photos have natural backgrounds, rather than solid black.

    1. Thanks, Gary. It’s a commonplace among writing coaches that we should write what we know, but I’ve always enjoyed beginning with what interests me, whether I know anything about it or not.

      Of course that means some posts get knocked out in about three months, but, hey — time flies when you’re having fun!

  6. I have long had a love affair with these magical white birds. One of my stories takes place in the Okeefenokee of South Georgia/North Florida. One of the characters is a lady who can turn into a snowy egret (or a snowy egret who can turn into a lady). Another character is a man who has dutifully done what was expected of him all his life, but is deeply unhappy and haunted by all the roads he has not taken in his life. He sees the beautiful white bird, longs to photograph her and, in attempting to do so, follows her into the moonlit swamp. There, he sees her turn into a woman, and then discovers she is there to meet someone else.

    1. Now, that’s an “Oh, whoops” experience of the first order. It’s a neat story line, and one that’s more believable than a reader who’s never seen a swamp might think.

      I remember you mentioning the importance of playa lakes for the egrets — not to mention other birds. Reading this brief description, I was surprised at how important they are for a variety of waterfowl during migration. Still, there’s nothing more beautiful than a wading bird at the water’s edge — unless it’s one in flight, or one leading an unsuspecting photographer into the swamp.

  7. The images are stunning, and your story —- wow, I’ve never witnessed that type of activity! How great that they were comfortable sharing that with you!

    As always, thanks for sharing your world and stories with us!

    (A lovely ‘common’ pauraque has been incubating one lone egg near the house… hopefully the little one will emerge in the next week.)

    1. Somehow, I don’t think the egret was aware of — or interested in — sharing anything with me. He had a different girl in mind, or at least was hoping to attract one!

      I was so surprised to see the pauraque. At first, I could hardly make it out. Their camouflage really is terrific. And I laughed at a detail I found on a couple of sites: that their tiny feet rarely are seen. I hope the mama’s successful, and that we get to see the baby. How much longer will you be at the cloud forest house? I read somewhere — perhaps even on your blog — that it has sold. Perhaps you’ve already moved. I’ll check your new post later, to see if there are details.

    1. Thank you, Nia. All of the birds are delightful — your magpies, my egrets, our songbirds — and it’s fun to share their stories. I hope a good weekend for you, too. ~ Linda

  8. Great photos and terrific article. The plumage and mating rituals of the birds are beautiful. Sometimes these incredible shows seem impossibly elaborate, and also kind of nuts. How did they ever work out all this baroque, dazzling show?? Then I think about humans, and the birds seem to be doing just fine.

    I don’t know how accurate it was, but in “A Beautiful Mind,” the genius economist played by Russell Crowe sits in a bar, devising some brilliant “game theory,” or something, to improve the odds of meeting women. Because even if you’re Russell Crowe, if you talk economics, it’s tough to get a date. So then they gave him a Nobel Prize. (I condensed the plot, just a bit). So these beautiful birds, with their stunning appearance and performances, who are probably totally untrained in economics, are even more amazing, to have developed these spectacular “rituals.” Really enjoyed this excellent article.

    1. For baroque, dazzling show, how about the Australian bowerbird? I’m sure you’ve seen videos of their bachelor pads (years in the making!), but this is an especially good, short video of what it takes to construct a bower acceptable to the female of the species.

      It’s impossible not to wonder how so much of the natural world came to be, whether it’s the behavior of the birds or the complexity of plants. Much closer to home, I watched what seems to have been a courtship ritual between two house finches on my balcony railing a few weeks ago. First, he jumped over her. Then, she moved a few inches down the railing, and he jumped over her again. After repeating the maneuver dozens of times, she fluttered her wings, and he fluttered his — then, they flew off together. Sometimes, playing games may work better than game theory.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

    1. Birds and bees and beautiful flowers always are welcome in the morning. I’m glad you liked it, Tina. It didn’t occur to me until much later in the day that it was a good post for your Wildlife Wednesday, too.

    1. Everything happened so quickly, Debra, that I was lucky to get any photos. Sometimes, it’s better to shoot first and ask questions later — so to speak. When I got home, I was amazed at what I’d recorded, and I had to find some way to share it. I’m glad you found the story magical — that’s certainly a word that describes the experience.

    1. It was a gift, Janet. There’s no question about that. And we do share that love of taking the extra step, don’t we? Of course, there could be pitfalls to all that research. Figuring out what belongs, and what needs to go, is the trick. Or, as like to tell myself from time to time, when it comes to writing, subtraction’s more important than addition.

      I’m glad you thought it worked, here.

  9. What gorgeous creatures! I can see how their feathers would become prized possessions. You’ve done an outstanding job capturing their beauty (nothing like snow-white against that brilliant blue sky!)

    Herons are rather common along the Mississippi Coast, yet I’ve found it difficult photographing them. Either I’m too enamored looking at them with my own eyes, or I’m hesitant about getting too close to them (they *are* pretty big, after all!)

    1. A little tidbit that I left out of the post is that the Māori often kept the feathers in beautifully carved wooden chests. There are some impulses that show up in every culture, it seems. When I was a child, I had one of those small cedar chests that were salesman’s samples. What did I keep in it? Why, treasures, of course!

      That blue sky was another gift of the day. We don’t usually have that kind of clarity in summer. But there wasn’t any smoke or haze, and there weren’t any clouds obscuring the view of the birds. It was marvelous. Maybe that’s why the egret decided to fly — it made him feel good, too.

      I don’t think you ever could get too close to a heron. Most I come across at work clearly have a keen sense of personal space. If I’m walking down a dock where one’s fishing, once I get within a certain distance, the bird moves down the dock. If I stop, it stops. If I walk up on it more quickly, it just flies off to another dock — probably muttering to itself about losing its favored fishing spot.

  10. What a great write up on the birds!! And, the birds in flight look wonderful. Not much in life is a lovely as the wings or aigrettes of a white egret. Being ubiquitous does not always take away from majesty and I never get tired of watching them.

    I enjoyed your description of the summer clouds bubbling and building as it so typical of here as well. I love the drama of summer clouds and that it means rain and storm followed by light so brilliant it is hard to look at.

    1. You of all people know egrets and herons, Judy, so your words make me happy.

      One of the side benefits of this piece is that i finally have sorted out the difference between the great (white) egret and the white heron: that white morph of the great blue heron that always puzzled me so. I’ve come to appreciate the value of scientific names, too, although it left me completely bemused to discover that anyone with a pith helmet and hand lens can claim to have found a new species.

      We’ve had some lovely cumulus this past week, although I see a new low is sneaking past the Keys into the Gulf. One more month, and we all can breathe a little easier. The drama of the summer clouds is wonderful, but rain-with-a-name is a sort of drama I don’t need. Nor do you, I’m sure!

  11. Wonderful photographs, and you take me back to where we first “met,” which had to do (if I remember rightly) with my posts on our visit to Louisiana. One of our stops was Avery Island, and how magnificent that was. We’d seen the same behavior, but it didn’t occur to me (!) to find out more, so I’m especially pleased you’ve uncovered that here.

    1. You do remember rightly. Those were the days of Raining Acorns — such a long time ago, and yet not. I remember the tale of you making your way back to your little home in the swamp: what an experience that must have been.

      I’ve not yet been to Avery Island, but that southwest coast of Louisiana, and the areas just across the border into Texas are prime spots for bird watching: especially during the spring migration. I kept wanting to get over there last spring, but it just never happened. Now that you’ve reminded me of it, I’ll get it back on the list for next spring. The way time is flying, that probably will be day after tomorrow.

      I’m glad the photos brought you that memory, and it delights me to know that you’ve seen the same behavior. Perhaps both of us will be vouchsafed the same vision, now that we’ve seen it once: rather like hearing an unfamiliar word, and then finding it everywhere.

  12. I always love to hear about birds that I will probably never see! No, I really mean that. What is common you isn’t common to me at all. So posts like these are always welcomed :)

    1. It does surprise me from time to time how much difference location can make. It’s easy enough to imagine different species in Alaska and Costa Rica, but sometimes the difference between Texas and Minnesota (or Canada) can be just as remarkable.

      Of course, Texas is so big that someone living in the piney woods of East Texas will see many different birds and flowers than someone who’s out in the desert-like parts of west Texas. That’s one reason I have a few books about things like Kansas wildflowers and grasses. Taking a book on Texas species to the midwest is a little like taking “Paris on Ten Dollars A Day” to Buenos Aires!

  13. How lovely, you certainly drew me in and held me captive with this post. What an astonishing experience, how I wish I could have been there too, it’s not often you get to be a part of nature, rather than just observing it. The pics are stunning, and I just loved learning a little more about this beautiful species, especially the New Zealand narrative.xxx

    1. Forgive me for laughing, but it’s hard to be more a part of nature than when your bedroom turns into a dovecote. Just don’t crawl out the window and perch on the roof, all for the sake of better photos.

      I wish you could have seen the egret, too. The truth is, such things are happening around us all the time. There are hidden beauties and unsuspected behaviors just waiting to be seen and noted. But of course, the great white egret isn’t going to rise to the sky in the middle of a shopping mall parking lot, and even if it did, most people wouldn’t see it, because they’d be staring at their phones.

      I loved learning so much about New Zealand, and a few of the Māori beliefs. I doubt I’ll ever visit there, but there’s much to enjoy, even at a distance.

  14. Bravo! How lucky you were to have shared this wonderful ritual, and how lucky WE are that you shared it so beautifully with us. I have a number of old Japanese screens with egret, some in flight, but none so beautiful as what you captured. Thanks for such a gift Linda.

    1. Every now and then, I’m reminded of Audubon’s meticulous dissection of birds, and his study of their physical characteristics. I thought about that again when I saw these photos. They’re as much about the egret’s muscles and bones as its sheer beauty.

      You reminded me of the importance of the crane/heron/egret in Japanese art. It seems it’s important in folklore and myth, too:

      “According to religious belief pure white cranes inhabit the Isles of the Bless[ed] and their powerful wings are able to convey souls to the Western Paradise.”

      Now that I think about it, the birds played a role in Egyptian myth, too. The similarities among Japanese, Egyptian, and Māori beliefs is striking. Here’s an idle thought: might the white heron underlie the western images of angels? I’ve never wondered when angels got their wings (“It’s A Wonderful Life” aside) but the venerable Wiki tells us that “The earliest known representation of angels with wings is on what is called the Prince’s Sarcophagus, discovered at Sarigüzel, near Istanbul, in the 1930s, and attributed to the time of Theodosius I (379-395).”

      That Kotuku gets around!

  15. What a thorough study Linda about this bird which I’m still passionate about. I love Steve’s image, as well as Taylor’s engraving. I used to to follow these herons closely. You really have a poetic, creative way of writing. Your images are very sharp too. The Roseate Spoonbill is a bird I was not able to see (when I had a bird blog), so I’m glad to see it here.

    1. I remember you mentioning how much you like this bird, Maria. It must have made your time in Florida particularly delightful. I would love to see it in different environments. The swamps of Louisiana and Florida are much closer than New Zealand — that might be possible.

      The spoonbill is a fascinating bird. I didn’t know, until I started spending time at the pond and was able to get closer to them, that they have those bald heads. They more than make up for them with their wings, though. I call this photo “Saturday Night Party at the Pond.” Every time I look at it, I smile.

      Thanks for the kind words about the writing, too. Recreating an experience is harder than describing a bird — and it was the experience I was concerned with here.

  16. Your photography was great Linda. I would have loved to have seen that dance. You were indeed privileged.
    I enjoy watching the mating rituals of birds. Each species is so varied. Few things amuse me more than tom turkeys strutting their stuff. The show goes on and on around here. And the hens do such a beautiful job of totally ignoring the guys.
    Unfortunately, great white egrets are absent from our neck of the woods. We do have the Great Blue Herons come through on occasion and I find them magnificent birds.
    Another bird whose mating ritual tickles me is blue grouse, which we do have. Their whoomph! whoomph! whoomph! sound can shatter a quiet morning. I’ve been lucky to be sitting quietly on a log and watch a pair totally ignore me as they went about their ritual. Some fun.
    Interesting on the Maori, especially the part about going bald. —Curt

    1. At first, your mention of the blue grouse’s ritual made me think it might resemble that of our nearly-extinct Attwater’s prairie chicken. I found that isn’t true. Your bird’s “whoomph!” is a vocalization, rather than a full frontal assault on a competitor — they call prairie chicken territory the “booming grounds” because of the noise made when the birds run at each other and butt one another with their chests. But what an interesting bird, and how accomodating of them to let you sit on the edge of their territory and watch.

      The baldness intrigued me, too. After getting a good look at the bald spoonbill, I wondered if any Texas tribe had a story about a curse being put on the birds. It’s on the “to be explored” list.

      1. Normally the grouse are higher up in the mountains than we live. But three years ago, a forest fire that was about 10 miles away, drove them to a lower elevation and I found them roosting in our oaks. They didn’t do any booming, but I was tickled with their presence.
        And what about buzzards and their bald heads. I remember reading that evolution has given them baldness so they can reach inside dead things for tasty morsels without getting their feathers messed up! :) –Curt

        1. It’s occurred to me that I know some people who always are grousing. After hearing the sound the birds make, I wondered if there was a connection. Look at this summation, taken from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

          “Grouse — to complain. 1885. British Army slang, of uncertain origin. OED notes “a curious resemblance” to Normandy French dialectal groucer, from Old French groucier, grocier “to murmur, grumble, complain,” which is of imitative origin (compare Greek gru “a grunt,” gruzein “to grumble;” also see grutch). Related: Groused; grousing. As a noun from 1918, from the verb.”

          The more I listen to the birds, the more amusing the human grousers become!

  17. Your post is as much of an elegant ballet as the birds described. How lucky you were to see – and such wonderful pictures ( that camera well worth it!)
    The New Zealand history is fascinating.
    Their beautiful feather almost brought about their destruction. (I’m sure the fashion seemed like a good idea in context of the times, but whew….on that note, the US is considering taking some whales off the endangered species list despite the international ban. How smart is that? People put some interests above their own?)

    1. Phil, these photos were taken either the first or second time I was out with my new telephoto lens, and when I saw them on the computer for the first time, I thought, “Well. It was worth the money.”
      From that point on, I knew the lens was capable of doing what I wanted it to do. The only variable in the equation was the person behind the lens.

      A bit of information I found in the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas is interesting:

      “In Texas, the sale of feathers was an extensive business from about 1869 until 1907 with reports of this activity from coastal areas (Eagle Lake in Colorado County and Corpus Christi in Nueces County) and from inland areas along the Neches, Angelina, Sabine, and Trinity rivers (Casto 1983). After receiving legal protection and as the result of conservation and management efforts, both species have recovered and are wide-spread.”

      Yesterday was the opening day of teal season, and the guys have been talking about the remarkable abundance of birds. The more I listen to their conversations, and read about TP&W management practices, the more respect I have for the way the state engages in conservation efforts. There are areas of conflict, as with fishing limits or the Rollover Pass debacle, but there’s a lot of good work being done on the state level. Local knowledge is important for more than sailors.

      1. My oldest uncle ( who died at 104) and the next brother would go out every year (fall/winter?) hunt market valuable animals to skin to sell for school clothes and expenses. (and the family ate the meat.)
        While TX seemed to have an over abundance of wildlife, it was lucky someone noticed ones were getting scarce (in a post a couple of years ago) and management came into style. TPW has done an excellent job – and it compassionate many times. I remember being very little and seeing a couple of much too thin deer creeping through the farm woods. Dad said at the time that shooting them would have been kinder than letting them slowly starve to death as it was a very hard year with little to eat. But he didn’t shoot them – they were does and it was out of season.
        There has to be a place for wildlife, safe corridors for migration patterns, and natural predators must not be eliminated.I don’t think non-hunters really understand that local hunters care so much about the environment – the “tourist hunters” who don’t live in the area and just want a thrill, now that’s a different story.
        In any case – every legal gun/hunting/ fishing license that’s sold in this state gives tax money to TPW. Good to support the good stewards.

  18. I was out and about today, a very early fall/springlike day. Lots of heavy white and gray clouds, brilliant blue sky, chilly rain showers, warm sun, cool winds. And a lot of sandhill cranes in the fields.

    We still stop and look up when they fly over, we still point out the car window with “Ooo!” when spotting one in a field. Those are our beauties here.

    Cranes and herons are elegant creatures. Lovely photos of your sky dancer.

    1. Isn’t the mix of weather great in the transitional seasons? We’re still sweating, and sweating the possibility of storms generating in the Gulf, but time is passing, and change will come.

      I last saw sandhills a few days after Thanksgiving last year. There were perhaps forty or fifty of them in a field: too far away for a photo, but close enough to enjoy their chatter. I love coming across them, but it usually requires getting into more isolated agricultural land. When the coots and the osprey show up, then we’ll know that, whatever the conditions here, true autumn has come to northern states.

      Elegant is the word. Even the smaller night herons, and the blues, carry themselves with dignity. The green heron? That’s the species clown: interesting and attractive, but a little raucous, too. They’re all fun.

    1. It was a thrill after the fact. At the time, everything happened so fast I only knew something unusual was happening. To be frank, a good bit of my outdoor photography falls into the category of “take photo, figure out photo later.” I know you have the same experience from time to time — searching through the books and websites to try and identify this or that flower, so you can identify it for others. it’s not always possible, but it’s always fun!

      It’s good to see progress is being made on the fire. I was surprised to read your weather forecast and see freezing temperatures mentioned. Spring and fall are the times when the contrast between your mountains and my Gulf become most obvious.

    1. Thank you, Sheryl. You’re very kind. In times like these, I think we need reminders of goodness and beauty. I try to keep a sharp eye out for such things, and when I find one, it’s always a pleasure to share with you.

    1. It was wonderful, Deb. Today wasn’t too bad, either. I heard the first osprey of the fall. It took me a while to find him, but there he was, right back on the spreaders of a sailboat. Now I know that fall’s coming — no matter how long it takes to get here.

    1. Since that day, I’ve learned that truly serious bird watchers generally have had the experience of seeing such displays: sometimes, many times. Like anything, it’s partly a function of knowing the seasons of a bird’s life, and knowing where to find them.

      I’m so grateful that the wildlife refuge is so near. I can be there in under an hour — unless, of course, i dawdle along the way to take photos!

  19. What glorious photographs, and a reminder of the gift of being present – listening and attending to what goes on about us. As for New Zealand, my wife and I covet a trip there, which may well happen in due course. What a glorious world we inhabit!

    1. There are days when I’d like to yell at the world, “Put down those d***ed phones!” The disassociation between human beings and the natural world really does disturb me. If we can’t attend to the created order, how can we attend to one another?

      In any event, it was glorious, and a real treat to come away with some sharable photos. I can understand your desire to visit New Zealand. For years it was nothing more than a name: that place that happened to be next to Australia. The more I learn, the more appealing and interesting it becomes.

      1. Amen on the phones. I have a photo of a group of people in the Tate Modern in London sitting on a bench in front of a masterpiece, and every one of them is looking at their phone! It isn’t only the natural world they are absenting themselves from!

        1. I heard a similar report from a friend who visited the Louvre. So many treasures, but even more heads buried in phones.

          On the other hand, I just read this in a Yelp review of a local nature center: “So I will be honest, we went there yesterday because of all the Pokistops for my Pokemon Go game, but we actually winded up not even playing and enjoying nature. We walked all the trails, and each one got better! ”

          Sometimes, you just have to sneak up on them – and I don’t mean the birds.

  20. Just this morning on my walk I was longing to see egrets by the creek again. I hope that I will be prepared with a real camera next time. Your pictures are inspiring me and are so so lovely. Glory to God for the birds!

    1. I’m so glad to know that you have egrets, too. Now and then, I remember a boat that used to frequent our area. It’s name was “No Egrets,” and they had an egret painted on the stern. I thought the wordplay was wonderful, and they certainly saw themselves as people ready and eager to fly.

      I just read a post today about missed photographic opportunities. Carrying a camera certainly is a good idea. We never know what delights will present themselves.

  21. I love those photos and your words. We had egrets at Dad’s. They enjoyed the wetlands, and I enjoyed watching them from the kitchen window or at the water’s edge. They are beautiful and graceful.

    1. I can’t believe it. Every time you mention your dad’s place, or the kitchen window, I remember that beautiful post-storm sunset that you wrote about. It’s still just as vivid in my mind as the horses in your new pasture.

      It must have been wonderful, having the egrets to watch. I find their patience compelling. It’s so easy and casual — until a fish or a frog happens along.

    1. I’m glad I saw this, rather than the little ritual called “twig shaking.” Apparently girl egrets are charmed when a boy egret picks up a stick, bends down, and shakes it from side to side. If that impresses them, this must really get their attention!

      They are beautiful birds, and it was quite the amazing experience to be able to capture some details of this flight. I’m glad you found the photos pleasing.

  22. That final image is so powerful. Also, your opening lines were some very beautiful prose. You chose great onomatopoeia for the birds. I love herons, but I’ve never noticed the “breeding plumes” you photographed here. They’re quite astounding!

    (FYI, this is happening slowly, but I am retiring my pen name Alex Hurst. You may start seeing a new name around (Ariel Hudnall). That’s me!

    1. If you enjoy herons, you’ll certainly enjoy this fantastic photo of a great blue in full breeding regalia, done by one of my friends. The complexity of their feather patterns astounds me, not the mention the beautiful colors.

      I’m glad you liked those introductory paragraphs, too. I’m rather fond of both the pendulum and the snapping pillow case imagery. It can be easy, on a blog, to depend too heavily on photos for scene-setting. I’m trying to push a bit, and use words to create images, rather than depending on images as substitutes for words.

      Thanks for telling me about the move to your real-world name, too. I wish now that I’d begun blogging under my given name, but a decade and more ago, it was a strange new world, and people were far more nervous about such things. I’ve dealt with it by using my name whenever possible, and expanding my bio on my About page. There clearly are lots of changes for you right now, and I think this is a good one!

      1. That really is a beautiful photo! And I agree, about the words. I like to build a narrative when I can… it helps keep the creative muscles in order, and makes sure I don’t go too long without practice.

        Like you, I’ve gone under aliases for most of my internet life… but now that I’m in grad school, I had to make a decision, and I want to “own” my achievements under my own name… plus, it will simplify my life.

        1. I like the way you’ve put old and new names together. Were you able to do that without changing the name of your blog, etc? I’ll have to break my habit of not paying attention to the inner workings of WordPress and see if there’s a setting somewhere in the admin pages.

          1. Oh yeah. You can change your username but not your blog address, or just your display name, etc. It’s not hard. In the top ribbon, just hover over your image on the right and you should see a ‘Setting’ link. That stuff should be changeable there. :) I figure I need to display Alex Hurst for a few more months while people adjust.

  23. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written and photographed essay. Though I live in Australia, and enjoy watching birds,sadly I have never seen a white heron. Pelicans, Ibis, Ospreys, Powerful Owls and others are often sighted, so perhaps one day a Kotuku will grace my path.

    1. I hope so, Mary. I’ve seen owls only three or four times in my life, so I’m hoping for more sightings of those wonderful creatures. That’s part of the joy of life, I think — the knowledge that there always will be something more, something new and unexpected, to see.

      This has been a special week, as the first osprey has arrived at my “office” — that is, at the marina where I do most of my work. He’s a sign of impending larger migrations, and cooler temperatures. I love having them around over the winter months. Their call is a wonderful accompaniment to work.

      As a side note, it’s been quite interesting to learn a bit about differences between New Zealand and Australia. Clearly, both would make wonderful travel destinations. Lucky you, to live in such a place!

  24. Outstanding series of images, Linda. I find egrets among the loveliest of birds with their flawless white plumage and, depending on the species, combination of black and yellow bills and feet.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t seen one in Poor Farm Swamp where ordinarily several would hang out. The water has gotten so low during our drought that, while one might think it would make for better and easier fishing, it has become rather unhealthy with higher concentrations of pollutants, algae and other natural solids. I don’t know how the fish, frogs and other organisms are surviving…if they are. We had a rainfall of 1-2 inches over the weekend but not nearly enough to cure the swamp’s ills.
    As always, you’ve given us a fine history of part of the avian world.

    1. Those bills and feet can be great clues. This spring, I was surprised to find that what I’d assumed to be a snowy egret actually was a young little blue heron. I finally looked closely at the photo and noticed the green legs and feet: voila! A sure sign. Over time, I saw some beginning to turn from white to blue, which was just the coolest thing ever.

      I always think of swamps as being connected to bayous or rivers, and assumed the fish could travel elsewhere during drought. They do that here, moving from the flats and estuaries to deeper water when conditions warrant. But if your swamp’s a closed system, like a pond, I suppose things get dicier. In any event, the birds follow the fish and frogs. After Hurricane Ike, it was weeks and weeks before the birds showed up again. All of the fish apparently were swept away in the storm surge. I still remember the night I first heard a fish jump. I nearly wept for joy.

      1. Our swamp is basically enclosed. There are some small inflows but for the most part they are also drying up and the beavers have taken care of the rest. So without any new water supply the depth shrinks and the turbidity rises.

        Bills and feet. I just confirmed my podiatrist appointment. :-)

  25. What a wonderful piece! I always find it amazing how widespread and far-flung these beautiful creatures have been found. That (woodblock?) artwork of E. Mervyn Taylor is absolutely magnificent — I’ve never seen his work, and as always I have to THANK you for opening my eyes to yet more beauty. :) Ironically, his work wasn’t done that far from where I spent my youth!

    1. Feygirl, that’s a real plus — that I picked a piece of artwork that’s related to your history, too. It is a woodblock print. I browsed through the collections in the gallery, and was so taken with several pieces, but his certainly fit this story.

      Whatever the problems with the internet (and there are a few) there’s no question that it not only connects people who otherwise wouldn’t meet, but also opens up cultures, arts, and areas of interest for us that we’d otherwise miss. Not only that, it’s can be a great tool for identifying birds (and other things). We don’t have swamps, but we have duckweed, and it certainly did make a nice backdrop for this yellow-crowned night heron who still was dressed in his finery.

  26. You were privileged to see that Great egret display – I’m envious but so happy for you, and for me (!) because I get to read about it and see these fantastic photos – such grace. I love the elegant curves in the wings, and in the whole body when the feet trail like that. I like that it got you wandering off to New Zealand and Maori culture – let’s go!

    1. Privileged, and lucky. Sometimes there’s nothing more to it than the proverbial right place, right time. On the other hand, I will give myself credit for having put on the telephoto lens and double-checked the settings — just in case.

      Aren’t the trailing feet fun? I wonder if gifted ballerinas feel like that when they’re en pointe: floating and free? I suspect it’s not an every day experience — that sort of dance isn’t as natural for us as flight is for the bird — but the similiarities are there.

      I was fascinated by what i learned about New Zealand. What a trip that would be.

  27. I’d forgotten that roseate spoonbill up at the top. I was astonished to discover their bald heads. I suppose I’d always focused just on the color. I’m glad you enjoyed the egrets, too. It was fascinating to learn of their special role in New Zealand.

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