By Audrey F. Baker
Young ravens remind us to be jovial. Witness their aerial stick game. You’ll see amazing acrobatic displays as one flier drops the stick and another catches it midair.
Nature is a great teacher, inspiring with lessons of wit, fortitude, economy and patience. She is a mistress of contrast, counterpoising variety with scarcity, beauty with destructive power and inter-dependence with individuality. All in her vast domain contribute to the richness of life, offering lessons in living.
Coyotes teach that strategy succeeds shortcomings. They achieve speeds of 25-30 mph. Problem is their adversary the black-tailed jackrabbit is capable of bursts of 40 mph and is often successful with its zig-zag evasion pattern. Coyotes succeed by running straight, nabbing prey at crossing point.
Adapted for drought, big-eared woodrats master frugality. These generalist herbivores prefer woody vegetation, particularly Coast Live Oak and its delectable acorns, and drink water in times of abundance. In dry conditions, they satiate thirst by eating succulents, leafy vegetation and fungi.
Nature’s lessons come from observation. One of the county’s most familiar and recognizable birds is the great blue heron. A frequent diner to Mission Trails Regional Park, the statuesque species stands 4.5-feet tall, weighs 4.5-8 pounds and boasts a near-7-foot wing span. It is the continent’s largest heron. Its message is patience.
“Blues” range through most of North America, covering Canada into Mexico, frequenting its coastline, estuaries, ponds and lakes.
A dramatic black stripe above the eyes that continues to the back of the neck accentuates its white face. Eyes, bill and legs are yellow. The black and white-streaked gray neck transitions to a blue-grayish body. Head, chest, and wing scapular plumes, coupled with height, make an elegant presence.
These are slow-walking birds with slow wing beats, yet cruise the skies at 30 mph. They take large steps with a 9-inch stride. When alarmed, flight is swift with rapid gains in height and distance.
Stealth and strategy characterize the erudite great blue heron. Perusing above tree line for the reflected glassy glow of water, it locates feeding sites. Slowly circling the area, it establishes itself on a tree. Perched, it can espy potential food and impending threats. Patience is key. The observational period can be lengthy. The approach is slow, deliberate. Blending in without disturbance is paramount. Whether wading in water or ashore, a motionless posture is maintained. A crouching position may be assumed to obscure its full size. It depends on its varied gray coloration to affect invisibility.
Its fishing strategy exhibits efficiency, incorporating the natural curiosity of fish. Silent and bullet quick, our spear fisherman impales with its dagger-like bill. Shaking the catch collapses damaging spines. A turn of the head drops the fish into the mouth. It is gulped down, swallowed whole. The process is completed with hardly a ripple in the water.
Patience perseveres. Ninety percent of the heron’s waking hours are spent stalking food. Enhanced by a large number of photoreceptors, its eyes permit day and night hunting.
Many perceive “great blue” as strictly aquatic, a shrimp and turtle type. At water’s edge, the solitary feeder enjoys many components of its “ABC diet” — amphibians, bullfrogs, crabs, dragonflies, every edible it can swallow.
Our hunter is actually a surf-and-turf eater. While fish dominates the menu, in its western range great blues frequently take mammals, seizing prey in their strong mandibles. Terrestrials gleaned from meadow, grassland and farmland include large insects, snakes, ground squirrels, reptiles, voles, baby rabbits, rats, mice, and small birds. Small animals quickly learn if the tree walks, run!
Great blue herons are year-round residents in San Diego County with heronries (colonies) at several sites, breeding from February to May. The high tree nesters build stick nests 4-feet deep and across, producing three to six eggs. Typically one to two survive. Hatching is asynchronous, over several days. The first born grows faster and is a more aggressive feeder.
Owing to size, adults are invulnerable to most predators. Chicks are nest occupants for up to three months, safeguarded from formidable marauding crows, vultures, owls, and raccoons. That’s one more lesson offered. Parent with patience! See you in the park!
— Check the Mission Trails Regional Park Events Calendar published at mtrp.org. Call 619-668-3281 for more information on the park’s free offerings and opportunities to learn more about natural Southern California. Special walks can be arranged for scouts, clubs, or other organizations of any fitness or mobility level. Contact Ranger Chris Axtmann at 619-668-2746 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.