Great Blue Herons at Sunset (and the Story of the Storm)

| 4 images

On the first day with my new 600mm lens, I headed out onto some sand bars near the southern shore of Cherry Creek Reservoir. Normally, during years when we get enough rain, these areas are under several feet of water at least. Since Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions for the last couple of years, water levels are down at least five feet, which has exposed a lot of sandy beaches, mud flats, and sand bars that are usually inaccessible to humans. My goal was originally to photograph some gulls and pelicans that have found the most remote of these sand bars to spend the days (and nights, I presume).

I was unaware that a fairly severe thunderstorm was rolling in…it takes a little while to get out to this area without scaring off the birds, and by the time I got there, the sun was starting to disappear. Within 10 minutes, it went from a diffuse sunny glow to a deep dark, with the sky covered in deep gray, almost black clouds. The moment it started to rain, a lightning bolt cracked less than 1000 yards away right on the shore…I felt the shockwave, and it was incredibly loud. A few more bolts struck, all within the bounds of Cherry Creek, and less than 30 seconds apart. Right over my head the clouds, where one would figure it would be pitch black, an eerie aqua glow permeated the clouds…different than the warm glow of sunlight that shone through the outer edges of the storm. Next thing I know, I’m at the heart of a raging electrical storm, with constant filaments of electricity coursing through this eerie region of the clouds, and bolts striking around the shore and park within 600 yards of where I sat.

NOTE: I’ve never been in the center of a thunderstorm before…and I’ve wondered whether that glow was caused by a low-level plasma (weakly charged ions in the clouds that allow an electric current strong enough to produce a small amount of light…what is normally called “glow mode” in plasma physics. The Electric Universe theory posits that the atmosphere is naturally ionized, and this a weakly charged atmosphere, which offers a much simpler explanation of electromagnetic atmospheric phenomena…I wonder if I witnessed evidence of such…)

For the next half hour or so, I sat hunkered down on the ground as low as I could go. My tripod was set up at its lowest profile, to drop it and the camera flat on the ground. None of the birds had moved from where they were…they all gathered, huddled low, and stayed put on their sand bar. I figured staying put and taking a cue from the birds was probably the best thing, rather than standing up and moving, potentially making myself a lightning rod out in the flat expanse of sand, mud, and inch-deep water. Eventually the storm moved off, towards the south east, taking that electric glow and all the lightning with it. Suffice to say, the day was a very unusual experience that got my heart racing for a while. Colorado is a crazy place at times…one moment it can be sunny, and the next your stuck smack in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Well, my stupidity…and perseverence…paid off in the end. The four photos here were captured as the sun dipped below the far edge of the storm that hovered over the Rockies. The orange glow did not last long, but it created some wonderful lighting, and highlighted three Great Blue Herons that were having a relaxing evening. Each one had its own moss-covered stump that was sticking out of the water…surrounded by what I thought was rocks at first. The herons were fairly distant (but hey, not too distant for 840mm! :D), so I couldn’t see them all that clearly. After a while I noticed that the “rocks” were slowly moving, and every so often a long neck would pop up…Geese! As the herons basked in the sun, the geese were apparently having their dinner all around…