We didn’t really have the time, but we desperately needed a break from class work, so Erin and I spent a couple of hours walking around in Sapsucker Woods (the woods around the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) this afternoon. It was a wonderful day for birdwatching — a warm spring day with the occasional shower. Lots of migrants are back and the woods were filled with singing birds.
One of the signs that spring is well underway is when the warblers start returning. We saw our first ones of the year today: a whole bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers, one of my favourite species.
Erin managed to find a Brown Creeper, which is pretty impressive. It’s a perfectly common bird, but seldom seen since it blends in so well with its background as it spirals up and down tree trunks. I’ve only seen a Brown Creeper once or twice before in my life. As I recall, the team that won the World Series of Birding last year failed to see one, much to their chagrin.
We also saw some mammals on our walk. First, there was a shrew busily scurrying back and forth right beside the path. Actually, I’m not sure that we ever saw it. Mostly, we say a great deal of terrifically fast movement and heard it squeaking. You would think that something running back and forth would at some point be moving in neither direction and hence be visible. But, no, it was never anything but the most transparent of blurs. I see now why shrews can eat three times their body weight each day without becoming obese. Or, I see now why they need to eat that much. Next, we saw a vole repeatedly running out from its tunnel in the grass to gather something from the path. Erin thought the vole was really cute. I thought of all the beets and carrots and beans that voles ate in my garden last year. Finally, we got really good, close views of a muskrat swimming around in a pond.
The highlight of the day was also at the pond. Erin has been wanting to see a Great Blue Heron for some time now, but somehow I never managed to come across one when she was around. But today we were standing by the pond when we heard a splashing sound behind us and realized there was a hunting heron standing in plain view about thirty feet behind us. When we turned around he thought about flying away for a bit, but then decided the hunting was just too good. So we stayed and watched, impressed at his magnificent control of his body. I don’t know how something can stand so absolutely still in so many awkward positions. It took a while, but eventually he caught himself a little fish that was maybe close to two inches long. I was happy to have gotten my best view of a Great Blue ever and to have gotten my first view of one in the act of catching something. But more was to come and quickly. Almost immediately after swallowing the fish, he took a step forward, leaned way forward, held perfectly still for a few moments, and then shot out with his head. And retrieved a fat catfish that was probably a good ten inches long. This fish needed more work than the previous one. The heron stalked to shore with it, put it on the ground, and repeatedly pulled his head back, and then stabbed through it with lightning speed. I know now that I don’t want any part of my body in the way of a heron beak! He also walked back to the water several times to wash the fish. I’m not sure what the point of that was. Eventually the fish stopped flopping around and the heron took it back to the water to start with the really hard work: swallowing it. I was a bit sceptical of the possibility of that fish fitting through the beak of the heron. I figured the heron’s skinny throat was expandable. But what about the beak? It did take a long time with many failed attempts. But eventually it got it down and we got to watch this huge lump make its way down the heron’s throat. A few drinks of water finished the process.
I figured the heron would now be thoroughly satiated and would fly off to sleep off a very full stomach. He did fly off. But only because a gander whose goose was sitting on a nest nearby chased him off. And he only flew to the opposite side of the pond. Where he soon caught another fish of the same size. So apparently it’s not just shrews that eat a lot. But shrews furiously run about; herons stand motionlessly. So why aren’t herons fat?
The other question: why am I a philosopher instead of a field biologist?