Bigger Than Your Head…by Brad Marks

Greetings everyone, we are back with another adventure from Brad’s queue. Today’s feature is a perfect reflection of today – too big of a bite as it were. Ever had one of those days when you feel a 1,000 percent and decide to step up your game in celebration? My friend had to bail on our trail run today, so thought “Hey Bri, let’s put on the big boy pants and go hit the second hardest trail course in the area”. Mind you, Inner Bri has NEVER turned down a challenge and now several hours later sitting here wondering at what point an alien is going to pop out of my lungs. 2 months to go before I have a 50K on the big daddy course – Inner Bri is evil ha. I’ll let Brad take you through what kind of bite his subject took.

…take it away Brad! (note, you can use the image links to view the full sized images)

Like most of you, winter gets old pretty fast for us. Jan was looking at fun, quick, and warm trips for a February getaway from central Illinois. Not that the weather can’t be lovely in central Illinois in February, but it’s usually not. She found an inexpensive hotel suite in Myrtle Beach. I asked what’s there to do in Myrtle Beach (not knowing since we’d never been to South Carolina before). She said there are more than a few nature and wildlife reserves in the immediate area. By the way, did you know that Myrtle Beach is the mini-golf capital of the world? There are over fifty, fifty as in “five-zero”, mini-golf establishments located in Myrtle Beach. Jan and I saw two or three new ones being built.

One of the best winter locations for birding (IMHO) is Huntington Beach State Park, south of Myrtle Beach.  The park has multiple environments to attract all sorts of birds: seashore habitats, tidal marsh habitats, brackish and somewhat tidal habitats, freshwater habitats, forest habitats, and open grassy area habitats.  Need I say more?  It’s a fantastic place to see a plethora of birds in a variety of habitats without traveling to multiple states over multiple days.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

Hit the jump to read about Brads hungry GBH(ippo)

We had an early breakfast while the sun was coming up to make sure we were at the park around 8:00 am.  I know, I know, that’s late for some birders.  Remember, we were on vacation.  The very cheery ranger at the gate chatted us up a bit (probably seeing the Illinois license plates on my car) and gave us a map and a few tips to get us started.  Huntington Beach State Park is big.  While you can certainly walk between birding opportunities if you have time, driving was more expedient.  The first parking lot was over a mile from the entrance which put us within a couple of hundred yards of the ocean.  As we arrived the tide had already begun to recede from the tidal habitat. 

The raised platform where we started was only a foot or so above the waterline at the time.  As we ventured onto the boardwalk, Jan spotted this guy sitting alone, watching the tide go out and waiting to start the day.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

This largest heron in North America seemed out of place among the smaller egrets and cormorants.  The great blue heron (Ardea herodias) can grow to be 54 inches tall and this specimen was every inch of that.  We did not get to see its impressive 6- or 7-foot wingspan because it was on a mission for dinner.  Despite their great height and wingspan, they only weigh up to 7 pounds.

After the boardwalk, we decided to explore the causeway separating the tidal marsh and the brackish water.  While I adjusted my camera, Jan had already crossed the causeway a minute or so before me and was rapidly clicking away at the hooded mergansers, snowy egrets, a double-crested cormorant, a little blue heron and the very large great blue heron.

By this time there was precious little water left in the marsh areas and the wading birds were having a feast on the stranded aquatic life.  I was taking photos of hooded mergansers when I heard this loudly hushed “Brad!  Look over there”.  I looked up from the viewfinder to see Jan pointing just behind the mergansers.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

A very large great blue heron (is that redundant?) had secured dinner for the next few days. Fish can easily get caught in the maze of channels as the water recedes, much to the delight of the ever-hungry wading birds.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

Now, where was that fish?  Is it over here? 

NOTE for squeamish readers:  Nature isn’t always pretty, it’s about survival and sometimes someone gets eaten.  Not to worry though, our hero, the great blue heron is the victor in this story.  

Ah, there it is.  What a fine catch it was.  Now stop wiggling

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

Heron’s like to stab their prey with their long sharp bills. I could see its thought process as it eyed the fish. “Mom always told me two things: ‘Do not to take too big of a bite’ and ’Do not play with your food.’” Instructions ignored.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

The fish is clearly larger than the heron’s head and bill combined.  The hinged part of their bill can be up to 7 ½ inches long.  This fish looks to be nearly twice that, and much bigger around than the heron’s throat.  The fish clearly does not want to “go gently into that good night” because it’s still wiggling.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

The heron must have been thinking “I may have bitten off more than I can swallow.”  The fish is only about halfway in and more of it is outside than inside the heron.  The new dinner is so long that its tail fin is still touching the mud.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

Half-way there. The fish is still wiggling! A great blue heron can eat up to 1 pound of fish per day. I think this fish was well over 1 pound. Great blue herons have been known to choke to death if they eat a fish too large to safely swallow. I was beginning to wonder if this one had made the same mistake.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

I know what it’s thinking at this point, “I need a drink to wash this thing down.”  Or more likely, “I couldn’t eat another bite.”  Maybe a mint, to get rid of the muddy fish taste . . . just wafer thin.  The tail fin of the fish is still visible in the heron’s mouth.  Herons spend about 90% of their waking hours stalking food.  After this meal, I think the insects, amphibians and crustaceans in the area breathed a sigh of relief for a few days.

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

That’s better; time for a little stroll to help settle it down.  The heron started a proud strut.  Probably because it was able to swallow the fish whole and won’t have to worry about eating for a few days.  The smaller snowy egret and tricolored heron seemed very disappointed because no scraps were left for them. 

Have you ever eaten something so satisfying it made you shiver?

Great Blue Heron Hunting by Brad Marks

With a steady food supply, and barring injury or illness, a great blue heron can live up to 15 years in the wild.

The great blue heron is not a +1 for me.  However, it is the first time I’ve ever seen one eat a fish as big as its head.  While we were on this trip, we saw 56 individual species of birds (at least 56 identifiable ones).  The local birders told us they were rather disappointed with the low number of birds in the area.  I said “What?!”  They said, “Oh yes, there are several times more birds that usually migrate through the habitats from mid-April thru mid-May.”  They then proceeded to name dozens of species we wouldn’t see for several more weeks.

Thank you for reading. .  If you want to see more bird photos from our South Carolina winter escape, please visit here.


Thanks again to Jan and Allyson for proofreading and editing.  Thanks to Jan for some of the photos in this article. 


Important safety tip for birders:  always be aware of your surroundings.  I know Brian has mentioned alligators and snakes sneaking up on him in prior posts.  And I’m sure others have had close calls with animals in nature while trying to keep them in your viewfinder.  My close call was not with an animal, but with a very inattentive driver of a popular brand of blue electric car named after a late 19th/ early 20th-century scientist.  The driver was talking on his mobile phone and looking at the birds off to his right, all while driving into a crosswalk with people still in it.  I was already in the crosswalk and had stopped near the centerline when I saw this blue car approaching.  I also noticed the car was not stopping, so I did.  Apparently, every member in the car was also looking at the birds until someone riding in the front seat with him shouted and he slammed on the brakes.  By the time the car fully stopped it was straddling the pedestrian crosswalk with me standing there watching from the other side of the centerline.  He looked at me, muttered something complimentary (I’m sure), and then sped off down the causeway.  At least I saw this potential hazard before it became one.

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