Death on the River

Due to the hot, dry weather (and primarily due to reduced water release from upstream reservoirs), the South Platte River was very low this morning, attracting a variety of waders and shorebirds; among these were great blue herons, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, killdeer and spotted sandpipers.

While focusing in on one of the great blues, I watched as he suddenly jabbed into the tall riverside grass and turned back with a small mammal in his formidable bill; too large to be a field mouse, I suspect it was a meadow vole or a young muskrat.  After dipping it the river to moisten the fur, the heron tilted his bill skyward and swallowed the victim in a single gulp; he then resumed stalking the shallows for his next snack.

Though we often watch herons and egrets in wetlands and along shorelines, feasting on small fish or aquatic invertebrates, we are undisturbed by their natural activity.  But when a large heron grabs a small mammal and swallows it whole, we empathize with the victim, a creature that, like us, must have some sense of what is happening.  We easily imagine the nature of its gruesome death and may even resent the heron's unfazed response.  Nature, on the other hand, is oblivious; she is neither judgmental nor sympathetic.