Walk Like a Great Blue Heron
“Where did you get that cut on your forehead,” my wife asked me when the dogs and I returned home from a morning’s grouse hunt.
“A bobcat chased us out of our favorite cover and I hit my head on a branch!” There was no way I was going to tell her the truth.
“Yeah, right,” she said, walking away.
The truth was my right foot has slipped under an entanglement just before I’d started my leg forward for my next step. As I was heading toward the ground, I opted to protect my gun from an accidental discharge, which left my face exposed to the thorn apple branch in front of me.
Usually, I’m more patient. I try not to start my foot forward from it’s planted position. A little trick I learned watching great blue herons wade in the weedy shallows of a pond: kick your foot slightly backward before swinging it forward into the next step.
Most bipedal animals hop—kangaroos, some rodents, and most birds, for example. Then there are the rare few bipeds that can also walk or run, like ostriches and primates. We prefer to walk on groomed paths—roads, trails, and sidewalks. Yet, because of that, we have developed a lazy, low energy style of movement. The feet shuffle forward and stay just above the walking surface. It’s no wonder we struggle when we try to walk through habitats where tetrapod animals reign supreme. That’s why we have something to learn from the heron.
The great blue heron is a bipedal master at moving with stealth and stability in typically rough conditions. Now, you are not going to see herons in the middle of your bird covers, but the weedy shallows and shorelines of ponds, lakes and slow moving rivers offer the same obstacles.
The first and most important tool the heron uses is patience, another trait typically insurmountable to humans. The heron does not lift the second foot off the ground until the first is firmly planted. Once the heron is confident of it’s forward foot position, it bends the knee of its back leg as it lifts its back foot. This pulls the foot out from under any weeds, roots, or other obstacles that could lead to a trip. When the foot is high and clear, it swings forward and lands heel first. And so the procedure goes.
This method also works when wading for rising trout. Not just to prevent the unexpected plunge, but for approaching the fish more subtly as well. When entering the tail end of the pool, it is better to lift the foot clear of the water surface before moving it forward. Trout are easily spooked—moving shadows over the water and loud noises will send them down, and you will really turn them off by creating unnatural ripples or wakes by pushing your foot forward in the water. When this happens, you will be waiting a long time before they gain enough confidence to resume feeding on the surface.
So, if you find yourself in a heap in the middle of the brambles, maybe it is time to bird watch before you bird hunt. Let the master great blue heron show you how it’s done.