"Just a Little Green"
A few years ago I was fortunate to explore one of my favorite places, Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, with several talented artists who also happened to be much loved friends. After the Florida Wildlife Art Expo Rob Mullen, Carel Brest Van Kempen, Cole Johnson, Steve Oliver and I headed to Ding Darling armed with cameras, binoculars and canoes.
After a lovely few hours paddling off the beaten path, we pulled ashore near a dike that was a popular birding spot. One of the tourists, seeing our cameras and binoculars, walked over and said "you people look like you know what you are doing…" he pointed to a bird perched nearby "is that an eagle or an osprey?" It was obviously an osprey even to the naked eye, but we glassed it to make him feel better and confirmed "osprey". The gentleman looked at the printed bird list he held and said "well, I want it to be an eagle…so I am counting it as an eagle" He checked the eagle off his list and headed back to his group. We looked at one another and laughed...
Along the dike, we spotted a little green heron hunting from a mangrove knee. Every species of heron has it's own techniques for hunting. The green heron's arsenal includes sitting perfectly still and watching the water until a fish swims within reach…then, with lightning speed, the little green will try to grab it from its perch.
We sat and patiently watched, waiting for the moment…the heron didn't move. Time passed and the observers, birders, photographers and artists alike, began wandering away one by one. Pretty soon it was Carel and I and a photographer we didn't know. Then Carel left. The photographer and I sat as still as the heron. cameras poised for the shot of the moment when the bird went for a fish…waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally, almost simultaneously, we both lowered our cameras in defeat. Of course, it was then, as if on cue, that the heron shot its head into the water after a fish.
What came as a complete surprise was that the heron apparently forgot that it was supposed to maintain a grip on the branch when it grabbed for the fish…and crashed into the water with a completely undignified splash. The heron scrambled back out of the water and onto another mangrove knee where it fluffed its soaked plumage and ruffled its crest indignantly. The photographer and I looked at one another, laughing in amazement. Neither of us had ever seen that happen…and I have never seen it happen again.
It is moments like this that are carved into my memory after countless hours in the field watching the creatures I love to paint. Over the years I have learned that, for me, it isn't enough to visit a place and snap a few pictures for reference. The payoff for all those hours spent as my limbs cramped waiting for what happens next…are a plethora of precious, priceless moments of wonder.
In the end, I painted the heron poised for the strike…but, swirled into every brushstroke, is the memory of the pink cloud of spoonbills we flushed as we paddled, the a perfect day spent in a wonderful place, the "un-birder" and his "eagle", the laughter of friends and the hilarious "miss" of a beautiful green heron…