The return of the egret


Local outdoorsman sets out with his camera 

by Lowell Washburn


It’s late September.  Skies are clear and afternoon temperatures have climbed to the mid-70s.  Right on cue, migrating great egrets are passing through Northern Iowa.  Currently traveling from northern breeding grounds to 

southern wintering areas, the huge birds are taking a brief time out to rest and refuel.  One flock -- totaling a dozen or so birds -- has paused to look for fish in a back corner of one of my favorite wetlands.  It was late in the day when I first spotted the egrets, and I figured that there was a good chance that at least some of the birds would return again in the morning.  If they did, I planned to be waiting -- camera in hand.

When it comes to exhibiting a commanding level of “stage presence,” few -- if any -- bird species can top the egret.  With its elegant design, stately demeanor, and snow white plumage; the great egret is in a class of its own.  Stealthily stalking river backwaters and wetland shallows, the egret is as deadly a spear-fisherman as you’ll ever encounter.  On more than one occasion I’ve seen a bird go ‘four straight’ on successful strikes at fish.

Unfortunately for photographers and other human observers, the egret is as wary as it is efficient.  Hair triggered and nervous, the birds take wing at the slightest hint of danger.  But in this particular case, I had a possible solution to the species’ natural wariness.  I would arrive back at the wetland while it was still pitch dark, wade out into the marsh, and quietly install a portable pop-up blind.  After that, I would wait.  With the approach of daylight, the egrets would hopefully return to feed.

All of a sudden, an additional strategy popped into my head.  Driving to the Mason City Fleet Farm store, I purchased a plastic great blue heron.  Heron decoys are commonly used as yard and garden ornaments around waterfront properties or by duck hunters as ‘confidence decoys’ in order to make their waterfowl spreads look more convincing.  But what I had in mind for the bird was something radically different.  Upon arriving home, I used a coat of flat white house paint to convert heron to egret.  By staking the effigy close to my blind, I hoped to provide an incentive for incoming egrets to land nearby.

Whether or not plastic egret facsimiles would effectively draw live birds closer was anybody’s guess.  Nevertheless, I was excited over the prospects and had a hard time sleeping.  I finally gave up and headed back to the marsh; arriving more than an hour before daylight.  But although the sun wasn’t shining, the light provided by an icy white September moon was flooding the landscape.  Much to my wonder, great egrets -- dozens of them -- were already flying by the light of the moon.  Geese were also on the wing, and I quickly realized that I had found myself in the middle of a late night bird migration.  The birds kept flying by and I dug out the camera.  I kept turning up the settings until I could finally get some rather grainy, but unusual,  photos to document the event.

Putting the camera away, I loaded up my stuff and began wading toward where the egrets had been feeding the day before.  Once the blind was up, I put out my  ‘spread’ -- at which time I discovered that it takes a whole lot less time and effort to put out one egret effigy than it does to toss out dozens of duck or goose decoys.

Sitting in chest waders, in the water and in the dark; I slowly rationed the thermos of coffee I’d included in my pack.  The coffee held out until daylight finally arrived and low flying ducks began buzzing the marsh.  A few nearby red-wings started to stir in the cattails and I could hear Canada geese discussing the day’s plans.  As - Read More Via e-Edition

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