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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Gathering of the Great Egrets

Air Date: Week of November 4, 2011

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(Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

One early morning, a large group of wading birds came together in a small coastal marsh. Producer Mark Seth Lender watched closely as scores of Great Egrets challenged each other and searched for edible treasures.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: In the prelude to winter migration, wading birds gather to make ready for their long flights to warmer climes. Sometimes, the combination of season and a concentrated food source brings Great Egrets together in an extraordinary way. Mark Seth Lender was lucky enough to witness the sight at a marsh along the coast of Connecticut.

LENDER: Flagged each to the other they unfold: blue-white in the green velour of marshland, whitish-blue against the straw green grasses that line the meanderings of the river shore. Stalking, the pads of their great feet step, soft as petals to the touch.

Their beaks, burnished yellow-bronze are sharp as thorns. As day descends, stilting at the edge of water their wings close like the petals of irises. Water lilies, in contemplation, they vanish into the dark.

They came at dawn, Great Egrets in great and upright numbers clean and white and bright as bone. They stalk and stab the glass shrimp and the little fishes. Hardly worth the effort, and the time. Bigger game is their calling. They are here to hunt for eels.

The eels thought they had come, wedged through the narrow opening, to a place of safety. They were wrong. They arrived at this brackish pond tiny as a child’s finger. Fed on the untapped wealth, they grew. Now, none can escape - the pipe too straight a jacket that no longer fits.

The great beaks of great birds strike between the water’s ribs, deft, not a ripple of disturbance, not a sigh, all deathly still. The heart they seek is the Long Fish, its fins behind the head like tiny arms, flailing. Only Great Egrets will perceive again the light of day.

Great Egrets, on a quest for broader victories now raise their swords in the air and salute in pairs, their calls hoarse with command, their intentions clear. Their throats bulge with these calls of dominance just as they bulged moments before with eels. Then a flinch, a flight, a brief pursuit, wings waving. No feathers torn. No blood is drawn. Dropping like camellias drooping after rain, all come to no harm, the winner forgetting instantly the reason he felt wronged and the loser left to live out his life.

For the eels - not so lucky- deep in the belly of the beast. And I wonder if I myself, born here - this blue oasis raging through the vast and emptiness of space – have not made the same mistake.

 

Links

Back Story: Listen to a short conversation between Mark Lender and Senior Editor Eileen Bolinsky about the Great Egrets.

Purchase an autographed copy of Mark Lender’s book “Salt Marsh Diary” and some of his photos, with proceeds going to Living on Earth.

 

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