By David D. Cooksy | Mission Trails Regional Park
This is the final installment of a glimpse into habits and techniques of big birds of Mission Trails Regional Park as they hunt and consume prey. Here, a snowy egret displays the sensitive touch of its feet and deft skill of its bill.
While the great blue heron certainly showed determination, if not brute strength, to corral a bullfrog and catfish, the snowy egret was cunning and methodical. As with previous examples, capturing the meal is seemingly the hardest step, for if you do not have the meal in the first place, there will not be consumption. Seems obvious. But, what if you cannot even see the prey? What if the only option to locating a meal is to flush it out of hiding then chase it down? I guess it depends upon how hungry the hunter.
In searching for crawdads, the snowy egret moves slowly along the shallow water, one stride then another, almost shuffling, a vibration of its foot stirring the soft mud. And then, like the great blue heron in catching a bullfrog or catfish, the strike — the long neck shooting forward to seize the prey. Unlike a bullfrog or catfish, a crawdad poses a problem — pinchers and shell. What to do about pinchers and shell? Simple, just remove them.
If the method of locating is not impressive, watching how to declaw and shell a crawdad is very impressive. The snowy egret is part juggler, magician, and gourmet chef knowing the difference between carving and fileting. The requisite meal preparation process includes tossing, flipping, crunching, dunk for a rinse, followed by more flipping, crunching, and tossing. However, with each flip, off flies a claw; with each toss and crunch, off comes pieces of the shell.
At times, it appears that the snowy egret drops what remains of a crawdad. But, with precision, the shell is discarded, and soft meat of the meal caught … before it hits the ground.
With the process of meal preparation nearly complete, there is just one last step. When battling a king-sized bullfrog or a foot-long catfish, the final step requires a bit more consideration. However, with a cleaned crawdad trimmed to bite size, maneuvering into position is simple. Given the extreme preparation of a crawdad, I’m not sure if it matters or how a snowy egret can determine head from tail. That question remains important nonetheless. In the feeding I witnessed, in moments it was gone — head first.
The series of photographs of the snowy egret eating a crawfish were taken near Old Mission Dam on a day that could not decide whether to rain or shine. For the wildlife photographer, weather does not dictate whether to shoot — only what to shoot. In fact, rainy days are ideal to capture certain birds. On this occasion, I found not only the snowy egret feasting near the dam, but two great egrets and a great blue heron. That all four birds were together at the same time was not the more remarkable aspect of the experience — which was that weather had kept people home and I had them all to myself, making the moment possible. I sat in the dirt near the dam watching these great birds and shot over a thousand images. Not the first time I have had such an experience but memorable just the same.
Thank you for reading my “How To” stories and I hope one day you too observe these great birds in action. See you around the wild kingdom!
—David D. Cooksy is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.