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The Tadpole Hunter

August 28, 2009
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I promised these photos, taken at a digi-scoping workshop last month with Swarovski guru Clay Taylor, some time ago. Better late than never, no? On that day I was fortunate that the best subject for photography was a juvenile Green Heron that had found a slightly secluded spot on the edge of one of the ponds at Duke Gardens in Durham. Green Herons are interesting birds in their own right, not only for their subtle beauty or their hidden extend-o-necks, though those are undeniably cool, but because of one of their most ingenious hunting techniques. Green Herons, you see, use bait.

Tool use in birds seems illogical to us, after all it requires foresight and patience and a stepwise plan. These are the sorts of things we consider to be human traits, or at least genius monkeys, but it’s actually not all that uncommon for birds. Woodpecker Finches use twigs to pry grubs out of bark, Egyptian Vultures use rocks to bust open Ostrich eggs, and closer to home, Crows and Ravens are known to do all sorts of crazy stuff. But Green Herons seem almost human like when they use bait, dropping twigs into the water to attract the attention of fish, which they then pick off.

I’d only heard of this happening, but the photogenic Heron at Duke Gardens allowed me a peek at a behavior I’d wanted to see for a while, and although my photos aren’t very good, you can kind of see what’s going on here.

First, the bird finds a twig and maneuvers it in his beak

Then it holds it carefully over the spot with the most promise, and drops it.


Then suddenly still as its eyes train on the spot where the twig was dropped, searching for the minnows and tadpoles that are attracted to what they think is a possible meal. Little do they know it’s the other way around.

I wish I could have gotten a photo of the bird making a strike, as it did frequently, but Green Herons are far too fast and I’m far too poor a photographer. In lieu of the action, here’s a shot of him trying a slightly different spot.

By all accounts, this particular Green Heron was having pretty good luck here, as he reeled in minnows and tadpoles several times over the course of our time with it. Some Green Herons, however, have made such a technique into an art form, such as the bird in the embedded video.

Anyway, cool stuff. And neat to see for myself.

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2 Comments
  1. nishiki_85 permalink
    August 29, 2009 3:47 pm

    Great image N8! That's one crazy ass video of the Green Heron. I'll have to keep watch next time I see one by the water.

  2. Nate permalink*
    September 1, 2009 12:31 pm

    @nishiki- Definitely, they’re full of surprises!

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