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Lucky or well prepared?

May 12, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

GREAT BLUE HERONS (Ardea herodias) are those long legged, long necked, long billed birds that one may see standing in shallow waters of any stream, river, pond or lake. They are patient. Standing motionless in shallow water, they are observers of anything overhead, above the surface or even below the surface of the water. They wait for small fish to swim by and if the fish is close enough, its long "S" shaped neck uncoils and the beak stabs into the water to capture the fish. After a quick flip to get the fish in the beak headfirst, the process to gulp the fish into its throat begins. Pretty soon, if one is lucky, you will observe a lump (the fish) slide down the long neck of the bird.

Such was the case for this scribe earlier this week at Marshalltown's Riverview Cemetery pond. A great blue heron was at the west end of the pond when it flew slowly and oh so gracefully to the east end. I slowly drove my vehicle to the east end, this time with my camera and its telephoto lens at the ready. I was surprised actually that the bird stayed in the water as I approached. The stage was set. Will I get lucky?

I did get lucky. As I watched through the viewfinder, the heron was carefully and skillfully observing something close by under the water. Very stealthily, the head and neck began to point toward the target. In an instant, the head jabbed forward making a big splash of water. Hurray for the Heron, it captured a small bullhead. While the fish wiggled and tried to flip about in its unsuccessful attempt at escape, it was not going to happen. The upper bill of the heron had pierced the fish straight through. The lower bill was clamped tight against the fishes belly. This bullhead was not going anywhere except into the stomach of the great blue heron.

Article Photos

Fishing license? What fishing license? I don’t need a fishing license! I’m a nature built full-time expert fisherbird and that is what I do for a living. That’s my job assigned to me by Mother Nature from eons of time ago when most of the geologically young earth was still too hot to stand on. I play a part in the balance of aquatic ecosystems by eating fish. Heron score = one, fish score = zero.

Great Blue Herons are well prepared to exist in the role they service as part of nature's predator-prey relationship. They eat fish primarily, but other things can be on the menu too. Add mice, voles, frogs, and even a few insects, snakes, or small birds. All is protein for this bird, energy to be transformed into what makes up a healthy life for this species. When fully grown, the wingspan of a great blue is about 70 inches, just 2 inches short of six feet. Tall birds at from 39 to 52 inches, their slim bodies are not heavy. In fact if a heron comes in at 4 pounds, it may be on the heavy side. Heron vocalization is a hoarse gutteral squawk. Look for them at any wetland, pond, or other water area. They are well prepared to go fishing anytime anywhere.


Along the same theme of lucky vs well prepared vs just plain stupid, comes these instances of how mankind can get into trouble in the outdoors they seek to enjoy. Most people have enough common sense to do the right thing. That's good. They prepare for the event they will participate in by dressing for the weather conditions, or weather conditions to come by the end of the day. That's good. Most people plan the time outside to coincide with food and water requirements. That's good.

A short walk around a local county park trail system may be a one hour event. That is a far cry from a two day hike just to get to a mountainside destination when one must carry in a backpack all your food, shelter, first aid, navigation, and clothing requirements for whatever nature may throw at you. The people that can immerse themselves in these long excursions are serious folks with a whole heap of common sense. They have the skills to survive quite well while enjoying the outdoors to the fullest. Good for them. The have planned ahead and know the challenges, risks and fantastic rewards.

The flip side of this coin involves those that are not well prepared and assume that nothing bad or unfortunate is going to happen to them. From my three plus decades of former employment, I have enough memories filed away to write a book on the misfortunes of people overextending their limits in the outdoors. Most got very lucky and lived. A few did not.

So when my home phone rang one evening of a hot summer day, I had to be prepared for anything. Example: At the other end of the line was a frantic parent. "My son (or daughter) is not home yet. They said they would return at 6. It is now dark and they are still not home. I can't call them, they haven't called me. I don't know if they are safe or in trouble or what. Can you help?" Reply: "I need more information please. Tell me what your family member was doing that has you so concerned." "They went canoeing on the Iowa River. All I know is that they were going to Daisy Long Park (Hardin County) and were going to get out at Timmons Grove."

To make this long story much shorter, add these facts. My thoughts were not favorable. The odds were really stacked against the canoeists for a safe outcome. The river was running high and fast due to recent heavy rains, flooding in fact was happening now. It was a bad decision to even put a canoe on the river during such conditions. From put-in point to take-out point is a total of about 18 miles. I found out what time they left home. Hmmm. That puts them on the water about this time. If nothing happened they should have arrived at the takeout point within four hours. Not there yet. Call the sheriff's office to notify them of my plan to check all upstream bridges or other boat ramps. Have a deputy radio me of his observations and I would do the same. The vehicle at the takeout point gets its license plate checked for name, address and other information. I work myself upstream via the backroads to check every bridge, stop to listen and watch carefully. Nothing here. Next stop. Do the same. It does not take much distance at night to have a spotlight not penetrate the course of a river. And just around the bend no one can see from the bridge what might be on the river. I can only hope at times like this that being lucky will win the day for the misadventures of these canoeists.

In this case waiting at the take-out point proved to be the best option. Much later than expected, two very tired canoeists see our vehicle lights and spotlights from the boat ramp. They yell, "where are we?" I yell back, "where you are supposed to be, just three hours late. Paddle toward my light." Frantic, tired and much relieved to be safe, the duo recalls what made them late, what they experienced on the river, and their final summation. "We will never do that again." My radio call to the communications center advises all is well. "Call the parents to advise that the kids will be home in about 20 minutes." Whew!

In this day in age, reliance on cell phones from remote locations may not work either. Rangers have uncomplimentary names (unrepeated) for folks that overextend their physical abilities or perceived abilities to get out of trouble if trouble finds them. They may fall prey to the "9-1-1 illusion" that any problem will be instantly attended to by the other person at the end of the line. Calls that say I'm out of water by a hiker in the desert is not what park rangers want to get. Consider the caller who wanted to know if the mule train to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona was air conditioned. The list goes on and on. You may get lucky but being prepared for the real world with real world solutions is a much better way to start.


Next Saturday, the May 19, is the Trail Dedication for the connecting link of the American Discovery Trail. It will take place at 10 a.m. at the shelter house at the Grimes Farm. Join other hikers and bicyclists for this event. It is part of the Marshmallow Ride sponsored by local bike club members. Enjoy.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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