Gophers are everywhere in this part of Northern California. The landscape is literally pockmarked with their holes. Their vision is poor, living mostly underground, finding food by smell and navigating with their exquisitely sensitive whiskers. They eat primarily grasses, shoots and roots sometimes pulling a whole plant through the ground into their tunnel like some sort of magic disappearing act. When these Botta’s Pocket Gophers show up at their burrow openings, they will retreat disappearing in one-tenth of a second. And reasonably so since everybody here eats gophers – raptors, ravens, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and even great blue herons.
This is a seldom-seen hunting behavior in great blue herons and great egrets. These feathered hunters are classified as wading birds and commonly eat fish, crabs, frogs, and insects. But here at Point Reyes National Seashore, they’ve adapted to what is most readily available: gophers. The herons slowly stalk the open fields, stopping to tilt their head one way and then another listening and waiting. They can hear the gophers moving underground. And the gopher can “hear” them walking, too, by the vibrations picked up by its whiskers.
When I first saw a great blue heron standing in a field here, I didn’t know he was hunting standing quietly by a burrow hole, listening and waiting. I would have driven right by. Patience is rewarded here. The heron freezes. He tenses and slowly, smoothly and deliberately coils his head and neck backward, carefully starts to unfurl his wings and in an instant is off the ground. The full force of his body is thrown behind the piercing, razor-sharp beak aimed at a five-inch long gopher at the opening of its burrow.
The heron’s aim for a fatal strike was off the mark and the gopher is desperately trying to free himself from this grasp. Meanwhile, the heron is trying to readjust his grip for a better hold and ease of swallowing without losing his catch.
It’s fascinating and a little gruesome at the same time. I feel compassion for the ill-fated, little gopher so violently torn from his home and at the same time, I know this is the web of life, necessary for all of us in one way or another.
Daniel Dietrich, of Point Reyes Wildlife Safaris, tells me that the Great Blue Herons here usually strike at a gopher every 5-10 minutes while hunting the fields. They certainly aren’t always successful. However, he once watched a single heron swallow five or six gophers in the span of 45minutes. Where would this five-pound bird put that much much food??
After several tense minutes, the meal was complete and the heron hunted on.
This was amazing to see; the adaptations, techniques and skill of these birds, and even more spectacular to be able to photograph it.
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