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How to eat a catfish

By David D. Cooksy

[Note: This is the second of a four-part “how to” series. In future issues, look for “How to eat a dragonfly” and “How to eat a crawdad.”]

This series is a photographic record of the big birds of Mission Trails capturing, securing, and consuming a meal. In this installment, a great blue heron (ardea herodias) eats a very sizable catfish.

To the beginning wildlife photographer, I offer the following advice: first, know your subject; and second, be patient. Nature happens when it happens and there is nothing the photographer can do to change that pace. In capturing these images, an hour elapsed between spotting the great blue heron and the heron catching the fish. I knew from many hours previously spent tracking great blue herons what to expect with respect to its behavior when hunting and timing for photography.

A great blue heron flies off after capturing a catfish in Mission Trails Park

At the risk of coming off as a heron whisperer, as I watched the heron, I knew something very important was about to occur. After waiting an hour, I saw feathers fluff, the neck tense, the unblinking eyes, and I was rewarded with … the strike!

Over the next few minutes, I watched a vigorous struggle as the great blue heron pulled and tugged and pulled and tugged; whatever it had caught was huge and not going down without a fight. But, eventually out came the trophy — certainly well worth the struggle. As with the bullfrog described in the first installment of this series, after capturing the prey, the heron engaged in significant pre-consumption preparation. The great blue heron dropped the fish, jabbed the fish, picked it up, shook it, dropped it, even stood there just admiring the catch. Or so it seemed. Perhaps the great blue heron was giving second thought to continuing the effort.

The heron begins pre-consumption preparation

Finally, with preparation complete, the purpose of the catch, a meal, began. As will be evident in future installments, smaller prey goes down easily. But when the meal exceeds a foot in length and has stiff protrusions in the form of fins, it’s not so easy.

All meals — whether bullfrog, catfish, dragonfly, or crawfish — go down head first. The great blue heron struggled for long minutes to maneuver the catfish into the correct position, but then down it went. You could see a bulge in the throat of the heron as the catfish was going down.

After a few sips of water, a stretch of wings, the show was over, the great blue heron flew away, I suspect, to find a safe spot for a long nap.

The heron swallows the catfish head first. (Photos by David D. Cooksy)

I am surprised it got off the ground, but in typical flight fashion, one flap and it was airborne, two more flaps and it was gone. A magnificent show by a magnificent big bird of Mission Trails.

—David D. Cooksey is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park. For more information about the park’s free offerings, opportunities, updates and events, visit mtrp.org or call 619-668-3281. Special walks can be arranged for scouts, clubs or other organizations of any fitness or mobility level. Contact Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-3277 or caxtmann@mtrp.org.

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