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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Should’ve Taken that Left Turn at Albuquerque

When you chase a bird, it’s usually for some specific reason – it’s a life bird, a state bird, a county bird, or hell, even a year bird. So I found it odd to be foaming at the mouth for a bird that’s amazing, totally unexpected, and way out of place that couldn’t be considered any of those things. In fact, were it for one key difference, I wouldn’t have batted an eye at all.

You see, a Great White Heron was reported from a small pump station along the Eno River in Durham. It’s like the more common Great Blue Heron in every way, except that it happens to average larger, have an all white plumage… and there’s one more thing… oh yeah, they happen to live exclusively in extreme south Florida and the Caribbean. How it ended up along a random bend of the Eno River, I’ve no idea. Doesn’t look much like the Florida Keys to me!

Looks about as far from the Florida Keys as you can get!

I didn’t expect to find much when Mark, Scott and I descended upon that old pump station. In all honesty I assumed the bird was the result of a misidentified Great Egret, but on that off chance we had to check. Looking around the busy overpass yielded nothing more than a few Song Sparrows, but I couldn’t give up that easily. I scanned the river bank to no avail, and I decided to walk just around the bend to see if it was roosting along the far side. All of a sudden, I saw it, right in front of me. A hulking white bird, with an unmistakably huge bill and pale legs – an honest to God Great White Heron! After firing a few record shots, we tried to get closer, but the bird flushed downriver. I didn’t have a shot I was happy with, which would never do, so I gave chase!

Damn you, twig-through-the-face! Damn you to hell!

Stumbling over loose rocks and hidden stumps, I found myself thinking that in all honesty, the bird had probably flushed farther than I could see. I decided to scale what looked like an old dam to get the best possible vantage point when a large white shape busted off the side of the river… it had to be gone for good this time! Not so, it flew just twenty feet and landed on a sturdy branch hanging over the rushing waters. This was it – my one and only chance to photograph a real Great White Heron. Luckily, even through the twigs and leaves in front of the bird, my camera nailed the focus!

Yep, I'll take that. It gets better if you zoom in!

So what makes this a Great White Heron and not just a highly leucistic resident Great Blue? I mentioned the huge boat-like bill, which makes the Great Blue’s look slender and narrow by comparison, and the pale yellowish-gray legs (Great Blues have rather dark legs). There’s also the short head plume which you can see in some of the shots, totally insignificant compared to a Great Blue Heron. But then there’s the size. I didn’t notice it at first, but on the way back I caught a Great Blue Heron in flight along the river. It looked very thin and lithe compared to the behemoth of a bird I’d just witnessed. When I got home, I checked some pictures online just to make sure, and it matched up perfectly. Bill shape, leg color, plume length – it was all there. As Marissa Tomei might say, the bird looked dead-on balls accurate.

Click through for HD Video!

So now comes the question of – why? It’s just a rare subspecies (the white morph of the larger Ardea herodias occidentalis), so it does nothing for my county lists. But having seen it, I can say it was totally worth it, even just to be in the presence of this amazing bird. Plus, if they ever decide to split it again (as David Sibley so wants to do) I get a free armchair tick. So I guess this one goes out to all the bird record committees out there – please split the Great White Heron. I don’t even care if it’s a good species or not. At this point, having seen one in my native Durham, I’d really just like to add it to my life list!

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