I have volunteered for the State Department of Environmental Conservation for more than 30 years and have contributed to a number of large projects, including the installation of the Eagle Camera, the reintroduction of Lupins (a flowering plant), and the Trumpeter Swan endeavor, along with a variety of other, smaller ones Projects — Bird surveys, general observations and of course nature photography. I’ve always had a permit to go back into the state wildlife refuges for these purposes. Hiking is difficult for me now that I’m more “mature” and so this permit was a blessing. Being able to stay in my vehicle has allowed me to take some great wildlife pictures. My early and late forays into the swamps allow me to observe things that DEC personnel often don’t see.
Earlier this month I rode back into one of the swamps at a wildlife management area to check on conditions. To my surprise, I came across a huge flock of egrets that had concentrated in one section of the swamp before heading off to their roost for the evening. About three hundred of these white birds gathered in a small area was a sight to behold. There were also some great blue herons and some sandhill cranes.
I was over the moon with this find and stayed until after sunset to see what would happen. They left slowly, small groups at a time, and flew about half a mile to a dead tree roost in another swamp where they would spend the night. The sight of all those white birds perching closely in the trees in the fading light was even more impressive.
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Of course, I started checking this situation every night, hoping to learn something from the birds and just marvel at the amazing sight they made. Then one evening I found fewer of them at this gathering place – but all at the roosting place as I left. The next day I decided to go back much earlier to see what was going on.
Before I got to the staging area, I spotted a group that seemed to be feeding in another swamp. The conditions weren’t right for photographing them, so I continued to the collection point. As I followed a curve in the dyke, I spotted about 25 to 30 herons in front of me. I stopped and waited until they decided I wasn’t a threat, then slowly moved up a bit, stopped and waited some more, advanced a bit, started and stopped repeatedly for more than half an hour until I was only 50 meters away from them. After waiting another five minutes for them to calm down, I slipped my camera out the car window and started taking pictures.
The lighting was perfect in both intensity and direction, a very important requirement for good photography, so I sat there absorbing the great displays and taking way too many photos. Herons flew in and out of the area giving me great aerial shots and the birds seemed really good at ‘snacking’ crabs and small fish. There was much conflict among the birds when maneuvering for good fishing positions or when one caught something and another tried to take it.
I ended up with relaxed poses of birds preening, scratching and of course flying in and landing. A couple of great blue herons joined the heron party and they too provided me with some unique photos. Although the heron’s white plumage makes it look just as large, the heron is larger and the group in my line of sight seemed to dominate the white birds.
After about half an hour I approached the herons again very slowly in order to be able to position myself even better. The birds were not alarmed; some even approached me to fish.
All in all I spent about an hour and a half taking way too many photos and I probably would have stayed longer if the sun hadn’t set and cast shadows on the birds. I walked away from the scene as slowly as I had come in and didn’t disturb her.
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When I get into a good situation, I take advantage of it because you never know when it will happen again. For example: I returned to the same spot the next evening and these birds were working an area far back in the swamp, so I didn’t get any additional photos. (Thank God?!) I returned a few days later and found only about 100 birds on the roost and no others flying in; I assumed many of them had started their migration south.
Then, a few days later, as I was taking a friend home at sunset, about eight miles from the heron roost, I discovered a white mass between two woods far out in an open swamp. They had to be the same group I observed, right? So the next night I went to this new spot earlier than usual to see which direction they were coming from. In better light conditions I was able to count about 225 birds and stragglers moving in after the light started to fade.
I find it very interesting that these birds have just moved from their original foraging and roosting sites and have traveled eight miles. That’s of course what makes nature so interesting for me – there’s always something new and also one or the other unanswered question.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and wildlife photographer, lives in Medina. Contact him at 585-798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.