Encounters with White-necked Herons
Probably my all time favorite species of heron is the White-necked Heron (Ardea pacifica) or previously known as Pacific Heron. I am actually annoyed as to why they had to change the common name. Pacific had so much more romance and pleasantness to it; but White-necked? It now sounds like some boring bird.
One of my first encounters with these mighty fine Ardeids was near Nepean Weir at Penrith where I saw one standing in the spot I call the rapids – where the convergence of the river’s banks causes the water to flow over a gap around 20 meters wide and there are a lot of nice, round pebbles. It creates a rapid flow I would expect in a mountain stream, hence my name for the area. As I approached from the top of the hill along the footpath the heron flew when I got not even 100 meters away. It was a fleeting encounter indeed. I remember how impressive the bird looked even from the distance. Next time I saw them was at Pitt Town Lagoon in November 2007 and they liked the areas further from any known walking track. I, once again, observed from a safe distance. Safe for them that is. Then one day I got really close. You wonder how? It’s easy. I was not out to photograph them at all. In fact, I was dressed in full camouflage gear from head to toe with even the Aussie army issue broad-brimmed hat covering my head to protect me from above. I was crawling through the snake-infested swamp in order to get close to some Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus). The approach worked and I got close. I even managed to see a few sleeping Japanese Snipes (Gallinago hardwickii) that are now called Latham’s Snipe from about 5 meters away as they lay so inconspicuously among the tussocks. I would never have seen them if I was not so close and so careful. Then I heard some harsh croaking calls from above. I carefully looked and saw that a pair of White-necked Herons were approaching but were also squabbling at the same time. They were pecking each other in flight and circled low over me. Needless to say it would have been suicidal to stand up as the birds would surely have deserted the area immediately. So I lay quietly and watched carefully. Then one flew in from the SW, very low over the swamp and I managed to get one image on approach before it landed about 12 meters away.
The approach shot is a classic for me, even though an out of focus dry and very dead grass stem is obscuring the head. Actually, I don’t find that distracting at all and in my opinion it takes nothing away from the image. I was surrounded by tall, dry and dead grasses so that was what I’d get. As soon as it landed I carefully composed and fired off a couple of frames before the heron realized it was a mortal enemy laying in the swamp nearby and made a hasty departure. I was rapt to say the least. My favorite bird so close to me and so unexpectedly.
That is the best thing about nature photography. You never know what will cross your path when you are out in the field.
It was the odd sighting since that day; here and there, in flight over a swamp, in the distance in a pond and so on. In the spring of 2009 (which is September-November in Australia) I had a young specimen in a small triangular-shaped road side grass patch in Cranebrook for nearly two weeks. I had moderate success photographing this one using my car as a hide and could get close to it and observe it feast on earthworms.
Then late 2009 on my way home from work one day I took a detour into the lowlands of Richmond, about 50km NW of Sydney. A small pond sits almost beside the fence along the roadway and it is here where I became reacquainted with this majestic heron that afternoon. I had my friend Alex Zografos with me earlier and we visited a Striated Pardalote (Pardalotus striatus) colony in Schofields before coming out here to check for raptors. Alex decided to call it a day and head home and I chose to have another look in the area that we missed on the previous drive through the lowlands.
The light was wrong from a photography perspective. Well only to a degree. I prefer light to come from behind me straight onto the bird. Though many other times I also enjoy capturing an imageof back or side-lit birds that give a different sense of depth to the image and a very unique and appealing look. Therefore, I worked the best I could from the edge of the pond without spooking the heron. I also woke to the fact that if I were to come again at dawn, the light would be from my ideal angle. The next time I came, I’ve won! It was still relatively early, but the harsh Aussie sun was already burning hot and a beautiful young White-necked Heron was foraging at the far end of the pond totally ignoring me of my slow and deliberate approach.
I was totally blown away as to how unconcerned this bird was of my presence and I kept working it for about half an hour photographing it in all different poses, from up close to afar. In fact, right near the end of our little session it came so close I could only fit the head and shoulders into the frame. It made composition tough and there were some dry sticks right behind the head, which were rather annoying in a way, but I was unable to change position as I knew any significant movement would make it flee in an instant. It did about two minutes later. Not that I moved at all. My legs were cramped and I had pins and needles in both feet for a while, but it was all worth it.
I hope you enjoyed reading about my encounters with the White-necked Herons. Wish you all great light for your journey!