Sometimes when I am riding my bike or kayaking around some of the irreplaceable marshy areas that encircle New York Harbor, including Cheesequake, Pews Creek & Comptons Creek, Matawan Creek, Blue Heron Park, and Jamaica Bay, I catch a glimpse of a wading bird foraging for food, especially fish. What I see from a distance provides wonderful insight into the lives of wildlife.
It’s all about food! As wading birds begin nesting now in large well-built nests high in tall trees or low in marshy grasses on remote islands and out-of-the-way wetlands, they are seeking food to sustain partners, young, and eventually their southbound migration in the fall. Food provides much needed energy to endure.
Watch closely and you will see that different wading birds have different foraging methods. It’s a smorgasbord of ways to seize a slimy cold-blooded vertebrate with gills and fins.
While some birds will stay motionless watching for baitfish, others will be more active, shuffling large feet in the mud and muck to stir up snails and crabs. Among the most beautiful of these wading birds is the all-white Great Egret. At more than three feet tall, the Great Egret is the largest of the American egrets. These tall slender birds can often be seen out in the open foraging in local marshes in large numbers during the daytime from spring through fall.
It’s not just birds, though, seeking a fishy meal. People too often pack beachfronts, bulkheads, piers, and jetties around New York Harbor vying for their shot to snag a sumptuous striped bass, bluefish or other lively sport fish. Over the centuries, volumes have been written on the art of fishing. But as any neophyte or seasoned person that picks up a fishing pole well knows, nothing is entirely predictable. Maybe something can be gathered from the wisdom of a Great Egret.
It all starts with water of course. But all water is not equal. Egrets tend to visit their favorite fishing holes, shallow watery places where parents or other wading birds introduced them to fishing, all based on the expectation that these places deliver lots of fish more or less over time. Egrets feed almost entirely during the day, most actively near dawn and dusk. In estuarine environments the birds must take tides into account. They like to fish mainly on outgoing tides.
Egrets also prefer to fish solitarily or in small groups. They pursue peace and quiet while seeking a fish, which is not always easy to find in an urban jungle. Sometimes, though, the pickings are too good to pass up. Shallow waters filled with fish, perhaps large schools of silversides or young-of-the-year winter flounder. Egrets may feed in large flocks or in connection with other fish-eating birds including herons, snowy egrets, or cormorants. Local marshes will be busy with all kinds of wading birds, sometimes fighting over space or a fish. Fishing is not always pretty.
Normally, though, an egret is a stately and graceful bird. It will walk slowly most of the time in shallow waters with its head and neck extended looking for small fish, typically two to six inches in length. A bird will stop abruptly when one or few fish are found. It will then start to fish by standing perfectly still and wait and wait for its prey to come near.
Patience and endurance! That’s the lesson to be learned here. Sometimes an egret will stand motionless for a great period of time. So long in fact its thin legs will start to resemble little branches or twigs in the eyes of a fish. This is a very good tactic, because small fish favor swimming around braches and twigs in the water.
When a small fish gets too close, a Great Egret will make a rapid thrust of its head to catch its prey with a rapid thrust of its long sharp, yellow bill. Once the fish has been seized, an egret will shallow it headfirst down its long muscular throat to the gizzard for digestion. Then it starts all over again.
Fishing is difficult, even for the Great Egret. Success is not always guaranteed. In foraging, the Great Egret is not very efficient at all, having a fairly low rate of success of less than 20 percent. Yet, the key is to never give up. Patience and endurance. Go fishing like a Great Egret and your patience will be rewarded, eventually.