Big Bird, Big Gulp

There in the middle of the lawn on the hill overlooking Vasona Lake stood big bird. Big bird, in this case, was a Great Blue Heron standing over three feet tall. It was the middle of winter and rainy enough that the park was nearly deserted–at least by humans. It was the time of year you start getting hungry for, well, a nice plump gopher, that is if you’re a blue heron.

There is an island in the middle of the lake formed around a snag that was left when the lake was created back in 1935. After the dam was built winter rains ran off the hills, into the creeks and finally into the lake sweeping ahead of them branches, leaves, and loads of brown silt. Some of this debris caught in the snag and settled to create an island. It grew and became large enough for several willow trees and some Great Blue Herons.

Every winter the rains still come, the water in Vasona Lake turns from glistening blue-gray to dull mocha brown, and the herons nest on this island. And every year, for the last few, they can be seen in mid-winter on the broad gopher-pocked meadows of Vasona Park.

The bird on the lawn returned the next day and the next. Children visiting YSI were amazed to be so close to a bird that was bigger than they were. As a matter of fact, we all stopped and stared.

One evening as I was leaving, I noticed the bird standing still as a statue. As I watched it moved slightly, head cocked to one side. Slowly, ever so slowly, it inched forward, like a cat stalking its prey. It stopped, waited, moved forward again. Then in a flash it plunged its long bill into the earth. It had a gopher! With a long sweeping motion, it tossed its head high and the gopher, fur and all, disappeared down its throat.

Who would believe me when I told them this story? Surely I had not seen clearly in the half-light.

Three more times I witnessed such scenes, always when the lake was like chocolate obscuring the fish that lived in its depths. Once the heron dove into the sod and came up empty, but usually the gophers were easy prey.

Finally one day the storms disappeared. The sun shone, as it hadn’t for days. It was nearly noon when I noticed the heron some distance away by the big oak tree. I went for my camera, installing the zoom lens just as the stalking began. Like a fashion photographer at a magazine shoot, I clicked furiously. Each step was recorded as the heron scored, threw its head back, swallowed, then bobbed up and down several times as the lump in its throat slowly descended. Sated, it walked to the crest of the hill where it hurled itself into space, dipped down a bit with its loaded belly, then sailed toward the island.

The world now has fewer gophers and more believers. But, “Yuck!”

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