Photos by Alex Ross
Text by Jim Ross
Standing in the canal’s shallow waters, the blue heron holds her neck in a relaxed, “S” position. When something catches her eye, she studies its movement and gravitates almost imperceptibly in its direction. As a call to alarm, allegro con brio, the heron straightens her neck, flaps her wings, and hovers above the canal, like a ballerina on pointe, arms held aloft.
She touches down again in somewhat deeper waters, contracts her neck into an “S,” and darts to her right. Leaning forward, she elongates and narrows her neck. Running, she repeatedly dips her head and most of her neck below the waterline. After several scoops, she throws her head back, holding in her beak a five-feet-long snake. Standing, she flaps her wings, as the writhing snake throws its weight in one direction, then another, and pulls free.
Undeterred, she lengthens her neck again and starts jabbing repeatedly beneath the waterline. Again, she captures the snake, stands with a still-elongated neck, and starts running. The snake throbs, jerks left, throws itself right, and breaks free again.
The same process of pursuit and breaking free occurs a third time.
Still undaunted, the heron throws herself at the water while running full tilt, captures the snake in her beak and, using her wings for propulsion, runs toward the banks. She has a firmer grip now, about six inches behind the snake’s head. The snake convulses, heaving wildly.
The heron opens her beak to reposition the snake and chomp down closer to its head. Repositioning strategically, she finally chomps right behind the snake’s head. In turn, the snake finally stops writhing and wriggling. Instead, it begins coiling around the heron’s beak, her right thigh, and again around her beak. The snake’s tail barely wraps once around the heron’s neck. It’s unclear whether the snake’s intent is to break the heron’s thigh, distract her so it can escape, prevent her chomping down again on its head, or simply to outlast her.
To disentangle herself from the snake’s coils, the heron raises her beak. She apparently doesn’t realize that, because the snake connects beak to thigh—just as Geppetto’s strings connected to Pinocchio—she inadvertently lifts her right thigh too. Not expecting this, she tips over clumsily, falling on her beak. She flaps her wings furiously to stand upright and doesn’t lose hold of the snake. Still not grasping what just transpired, the heron repeats the same maneuver: lifts her beak, inadvertently lifts her right thigh, falls over onto her beak, flaps her wings furiously, and uprights herself. Throughout, the heron holds on. The snake too hangs on.
It’s clear now the snake simply lacks the strength to writhe free. After repositioning, the heron squeezes the snake right behind its head. After repeated attempts to chomp down directly on the snake’s head, the heron suddenly throws the snake down on the ground, jumps backward, and kicks her legs to break free of the coils, once and for all.
She backs up, observes the slowly convulsing snake for 20 seconds, pecks at it a few times, then picks it up, chomps down a few times hard on its head, and throws it in the air like a cowgirl tossing up a lasso. As the snake comes down head first in a vertical line, the heron opens her beak, tilts her head back, and catches the snake as it passes directly into her elongated neck. The first nine inches disappear.
The heron’s neck distends as she repeatedly forces the snake along a few inches at a time. Eventually, all that remains is the curling end of the snake’s tail. It hangs there for several discomforting minutes, like a demon’s tongue, until she says, “Let’s finish this,” and then the tail disappears too.
The heron moves unsteadily like a drunk who has overdone it this time. She looks ready to topple over from the ordeal. For several minutes, she stands on the banks motionless. She then strides into shallow waters and continues standing still with her neck in a distended S position.
Eventually, she bends, scoops up a beak full of water, throws her head back as if she were doing shots, and swallows hard. A chaser. Five times she repeats this action in slow motion, poco a poco, each time swallowing not quite as hard as the time before. It looks as if the heron’s having devoured the snake whole may yet prove a pyrrhic victory.
An hour later, as dusk approaches, the heron stands completely still in the canal’s deeper waters, surrounded by early fallen leaves. Her distended lower neck evidently still houses the snake. She seems content now. A small snake swims into the leafy undergrowth as the heron surveys her surroundings.