I started onto the trail, ready to go for a rigorous hike with my neighbor’s dog. She is always so game for a hike or run, it always makes me happy to hit the trail with her. As we turned a corner, I looked on a mound near a pond. I froze. She froze, fixing her vision on what I was looking at. An adult Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) was standing on one leg on top of the mound, staring at us with an intense, piercing gaze of a predator.
Seeing one of these large birds up close always makes me pause for a moment. Their size is truly impressive, and it conjures up a primal sense of wonder and curiosity that all of us have or at least possessed at one time in our lives. Even though these large herons have little interest in humans and prefer to stay far away from us, they still manage to ignite a spark of fear inside of me whenever I am close to them. They are so large, so unique, and beautiful.
When I was in Southern Africa, I saw a bird that I thought must have been a remnant of an age long past. As my friends and I patiently scanned the banks of the Thamalakane River for any wildlife, my eyes locked onto a bird that was wading in the shallows. I could not believe my luck. It was a Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath). Astutely named, this heron is the biggest heron in the world, measuring up to 5 feet tall. The heron noticed me as I moved closer to get a look at it and maybe sketch some field notes about its plumage and estimated size. As it turns out, the Goliath Herons are equally shy, if not more so, than the Great Blue Herons I was so familiar with growing up. They truly test your ability to sneak. The Goliath Heron flew off before I was even within 30 yards. I always felt that the Great Blue Herons gave me more of a chance to get a good look at them than the Goliath Herons did.
It amazed me that despite the vast distance from the Old World to the New World, these two species managed to fill a similar niche and even have similar shy behaviors. However, one of them is considerably larger than the other. I have wondered why that is. Perhaps it is due to the type of fish that each heron hunts, or the climate that each heron lives in. Perhaps it has to do with something in their breeding grounds and competition for mates. To me, this is the basis for scientific thought and the essence of what excites me about nature. With so many animals in this world that are so different, we can still manage to find striking similarities between species.