A Tale of 'Slim Pickins'

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A fine old Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) has been hanging around the headsprings of Florida's Rainbow River for many years; some say for 20 years, which could be the case since herons do live that long. However, the oldest great blue heron of record was said to be 23 years of age.

Their average lifespan is 15 years.

As is the case with most wildlife, this species is extremely vulnerable when young; more than half the great blues born each year will die before they are a year old.

'Slim' is so-named because he is old and thin, and he has less than perfect eyesight. He is also missing a toe on his right foot, probably from one of the many large snapping turtles that live there. So he is easily identifiable when standing on a dock in his familiar river neighborhood.

This is his by now famous routine:

Slim swoops in every evening around at dusk and lands in the shallows near his chosen dock. Very often he can be seen on the remote bank of the narrow river waiting patiently for his fish-bearing friends to appear. In inclement weather he arrives earlier in the day.

Slim is a master of ritual. After landing in the shallows he inches his way into ever deeper water where he will then stand motionless for 8-10 minutes at a time, trying his best to look like any other blade of river grass. His long legs bend in order to disappear into the depths and his neck becomes so spindly that it is possible to even loose sight of him in the nearby grasses!

That said, he is not the best fisherman any more. So river neighbors buy loaves of day-old bread to “work” the fish around their docks so that more readily congregate on demand. That idea came from a psychologist friend. Fish are quite trainable: they are skiddish at first when bits of bread hit the surface of the water and they tend to stand their ground. Before long, however, they ease their way forward to catch a bonus bite or two.

There are often so many brim that, when they see the bread hit the water, they bubble up to the surface en masse with obviously great expectations. Occasionally there will also be a big old Bass or two in the mix, and some turtles; not to mention a passing Anhinga that deftly ducks and dives for his own share of those tender morsels.

The feeding frenzy at the surface definitely gets Slim’s attention!

Dock owners start by throwing balled-up bits of bread close to where the fish hang out. They then throw these bread balls farther and farther out from the dock to where Slim is standing in the shallow grasses. This draws them into shallows that they would otherwise avoid (probably for good reason). They create ever-widening ripples and splashes on the water’s surface that Slim watches with increasing interest.

Can you spot Slim in the picture below?

Some nights Slim doesn’t catch a fish. Then again, other nights he catches one and occasionally two fish, even three. With a fish firmly clenched in his mouth, or sometimes speared by his pointed beak, he walks back up to the beachhead where he safely flips it around and swallows it whole, head-down, into his gullet. He gets a quick swig or two of water before resuming his fishing posture in the protective grasses.

Research shows that fish can easily see prey at very low light levels. And despite their differences in habitats, humans and fish have very similar eyes. Light is diffused in water but the water in Slim’s case is from one of Florida’s most pristine springs that has exceptional water clarity. Science doesn’t know exactly what fish see except that they perceive the slightest movement, which is why Slim stands so still for so long, hoping that they will forget about him.

Boats cruising by are distracting, especially if they leave a wake which means that Slim probably won’t catch dinner that night.

Wakes scatter the brim, and they seriously disrupt shoreline vegetation.

But most recreational boats have left the river by 7:00 pm, so it is usually just a nature lover or two out there at that time of day. Nonetheless, neighbors wish for Slim's sake that they would go home. They certainly don’t want anyone to see all the fish bubbling up at the surface of the water lest an errant fisherman decides to suddenly drop anchor there.

When Slim misses his mark, which he does fairly often, the fish frantically scatter as his body hits the water with wings spread and head submerged; in which case the brim behavior modification program must start all over again.

You know they're hooked when even in rainy weather Slim's fans head down to the river with that big ole' bag of bread.

MORE SLIM IMAGES

Legs? What legs...?

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE GREAT BLUE HERON:

The Great Blue Heron (1997) Book by Robert W. Butler - Considered the best, most comprehensive information about the Great Blue Heron; beautifully illustrated, a treasure for Heron lovers

Facts about the Great Blue Heron at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Herons in the Florida Everglades

The Critter Catelogue (for kids) on the Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron Fact File at Wildscreen Archive

 

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