Herons and Turtles

                            Great Blue Herons and Giant Turtles

Sung-Peng Hsu, Started in September 2008

Revised in August 2011 and September 2011


I woke up at about 7 on September 6, 2008.  It was raining, brought about by the tropical storm Hanna.  I was debating whether I should take a walk in Brookside Gardens, as I had been doing quite regularly.  I learned from the Internet weather forecast that the rain would be relatively light compared to a few hours later.  I made up my mind to take a risk.  I had walked a few times under rain before, and it was quite pleasant, and somehow poetical.  Being an “aspiring naturalist,” I should not be deterred by a little rain as long as I put on a rain jacket and arm with an umbrella.  I also convinced myself to bring my camera, Nikon D60 with a 200mm lens, as long as I covered it up under my rain jacket.

An important factor that drove me to Brookside Gardens in spite of Hanna was my desire to visit a great blue heron there.  I had become very fascinated with great blue herons a few months earlier when I started my adventures in photography by following Stephen Hung, the leader of our photo club.  He was a heron enthusiast, having taken many beautiful photos of herons at Great Falls.  After I unexpectedly spotted a heron at Brookside Gardens on August 6, I became attached to it and regularly went there to find it.  Since there was only one heron there, Stephen gave it the name “the resident heron.” It was actually a wild bird; it flew there intemittently from somewhere for some periods of time almost everyday.  It might show up anywhere in Brookside Gardens, but it preferred the pond by Anderson Pavilion.



                                         The heron I saw for the first time at Brooside Gardens, August 6, 2008



                                     The photo was taken on August 6, 2008.  To me, it looks like the first being 

                                                           emerging from the primordial chaos J


In the stormy morning on September 6, I arrived at the Gardens at about 8:35.  Armed with a rain jacket and an umbrella, I approached Anderson Pavilion, hoping to see my heron.  I was surprised to meet a young woman, crazier than me, running without any rain jacket or umbrella.  I felt a little embarrassed.  I went inside the Pavilion, first checking one side of the pond.  Not finding any sign of the heron, I looked the other side.  The pond was very quiet, disturbed only by constant raindrops.  Suddenly, I noticed two objects making big waves, like two submarines emerging from and then submerging into the water.  “What are they?”  I was excited.  “Two giant turtles!”  I was beside myself.  I had seen many turtles in the Gardens, but not so large!



This photo was taken on August 19, before the turtles showed up on September 6.  When they showed up, I took the photos of the turtles for 10 minutes from Anderson Pavilion,  20 minutes from the right side in close range, then 10 minutes from the left side, facing the floating plants in the middle.  The resident heron was overlooking its claimed territory and hunting area.


I quickly put down my umbrella and took out my camera under the protection of Anderson Pavilion.  I was afraid that the turtles would disappear any time.  It appeared that they were having great fun.  No, it was as if they were fighting with each other, splashing waters around them.  I took about ten minutes of photos.  Though my camera did not have the ability to zoom in as close as I wished, I could see that the two turtles went through several cycles of approaching each other, playing and fighting vigorously, splashing waters around them, and then embracing each other and floating and turning together gently in the water.   What were they doing?  Were they enacting the mating dance?



    Big splashes made by the turtles seen from Anderson Pavilion


After about 10 minutes, the two turtles shifted their playfield to one side of the pond.  So I picked up my umbrella and walked around the pond quickly to a spot close to them.  They did not notice a person with a camera under an umbrella.  In fact, they moved closer and closer to me until it was about 10 feet away.  I had a field day!  I forgot about the rain.  I clicked and clicked for almost 20 minutes, often holding my breath.  By that time, I began to understand more about what I was watching.  My close-up photos are the best proofs.  “I am witnessing a primordial cosmic event!”  I told myself.



   The two turtles are approaching each other


                                                                       They are engaged in a tussle


Playing and fighting



                Tumbling in the water


    Embracing each other






         Having fun.  Are they looking at me?


The turtles gradually moved to the center of the pond, near the floating plants.  So I went to the other side of the pond for better views.  I took another 10 minutes of photos. 



                                                                           By the floating plants in the middle of the pond


                                                                               It’s a giant turtle!


I was really amazed why they had so much energy playing, fighting, and making love for such a long time.  I saw many cycles of the play.  After about one or two or three minutes of relatively quiet time of embracing each other and floating and turning over in the water, without splashing much water, they would separate from each other.  After roaming for a while, they would approach each other again, chasing, playing, fighting, and then embracing.


After about forty minutes of watching the repeated cycles, I thought I had enough.  Moreover, I had already taken about 160 photos.  They must have started their acts long before I arrived there, and I did not know how long they would continue.  So I decided to take a walk around Brookside Gardens.  The rains were getting heavier.   No geese, no ducks, and no herons.  A few brave people were running without any raingears.  The Gardens was very quiet and peaceful.  I found myself alone most of the time.  No squirrels, no butterflies, not even small birds.  Just then, I heard tiny chirping sounds from the trees above.  I could not spot anything, but apologized to the bird from my heart, “Ok, there is one chirping bird.”


By the time I got back to Anderson Pavilion, even the energetic turtles had decided to call it quit.  The pond was quiet, disturbed only by the raindrops.  The giant turtles must have dived into the water and taken very much needed rest.  I had also decided to go home after only one round of walk.  My shoes and pants were soaked wet, but I was really amazed.


Why was I so excited?  Why did I call the drama played out by the two giant turtles before me a “primordial cosmic event”?  To me, they symbolize the evolution of life on earth under the condition of a tropical storm Hanna.  They, as Yin (陰) and Yang (), chased each other, played vigorously, and even fought fiercely.  Eventually, they embraced each other, making love, floating in the water, as if deep in ecstasy. 


I went to Wikipedia to learn a little more about my new friends.  Turtles have been on earth for over 200 million years, long before we humans showed up.  We, as Homo Sapiens, emerged only about 250,000 years ago!  There are about 300 species of turtles alive today.  I don’t know which species our giant turtles belong to, but we can be sure that they belong to aquatic turtles, in distinction from terrestrial or land turtles (often called tortoises).  My new friends could swim fantastically well.


All turtles breathe air, so they cannot stay in water all the time.  They must surface at regular intervals to refill their lungs.  In the winter, some turtles can survive without air for many months.  Some turtles are carnivorous, and some vegetarian.  According to some studies, turtles’ organs rarely deteriorate with age, so there are efforts to find out the secret of long life from turtles.  I am bold enough to speculate that our science may one day discover the genes that enable turtles to live so long.   There could even be some kind of pills of longevity that could turn on or modify our DNA for a long life!  In the book Chuang Tzu (莊子), there are many stories about turtles.  They symbolize longevity.  There is one type of Qigong (ch’i-kung 氣功) that imitates turtle’s way of life and its method of breathing for improving our health and prolonging our life. 


Turtles lay eggs on land.  They do not incubate them.  After the baby turtles hatched, they become independent right away.  No mother turtles take care of them.  They are very different from herons.  One day, when I spotted the heron near the circular labyrinth by Japanese Tea House, an elderly woman shouted at the heron and told me that a mother turtle in the pond was watching over her baby turtles.  The woman tried to chase the heron away because it was trying to eat the baby turtles.  She acted like a “turtle godmother.”  She must be wrong in assuming that a biological mother was taking care of her babies.  How funny stories could be told!  However, it may be true that some adult turtles, not biological mothers, may take upon themselves the duty of protecting helpless baby turtles, very much like we humans who occasionally take the role of a “turtle godmother” or “heron godmother.”


I boldly described the turtles’ play as mating.  Some of my friends, who had received by email my photos of the two turtles, jokingly asked me, “How do you know that the two giant turtles were mating?”  I would like to offer the following indirect evidences or reasons.


(1)  As we know from scientific studies of lower forms of animals, they live almost exclusively for two things: food and sex (reproduction).  It’s very hard for me to imagine that the two giant turtles were embracing each other, face to face, just for fun, without any evolutionary mission.

(2)  The acts of chasing, playing, and fighting fit very well the courting rituals known all over the animal kingdom.

(3)  We must have some genes in us that have been passed on to us from turtles many million years ago.  With the same or similar genes, we may have some intuitive understanding of what the turtles were doing.  If you think I am ridiculous, it’s fine with me.  Lao Tzu (老子) may agree with me J

(4)  I hope scientists can verify my hunches with scientifically acceptable evidence.


I have also read from Wikipedia that one difference between male and female turtles is that the male tends to have particularly long claws, and these appear to be used to stimulate the female while mating.  I have gone through my photos and found it difficult to tell, because close to or more than two thirds of each turtle was submerged in the water most of the time.  When they turned over so quickly, it is hard to distinguish one from the other.  It is indeed true that some claws are significantly longer than others, but we have to take into account whether they are front or rear claws.


I have become a friend of both herons and turtles now.  You may ask, “Do you love turtles more than herons?”  This question has become difficult for me.  When the “turtle godmother” scolded our resident heron for attempting to eat baby turtles, I felt sympathetic to the baby turtles and critical of the heron’s behavior.  A few days later, when the locally famous photographer-naturalist, Michael, told me at Brookside Gardens that the heron’s foot was severely wounded by a snapping turtle, I became quite critical of turtles.  Even though Michael told me two days later that he did not actually witness the biting by a snapping turtle, I still assumed the role of “heron godmother” and half-jokingly advised our heron from my heart: “Don’t carelessly play with dangerous objects, especially snapping turtles.”



The great blue heron’s right toes might have been bitten by a snapping turtle

Photo taken on August 24


According to Wikipedia, turtles have a rigid beak.  They use their jaws to cut and chew food.  Instead of teeth, the upper and lower jaws of the turtle are covered by horny ridges.  Carnivorous turtles usually have knife-sharp ridges for slicing through their prey.  Herbivorous turtles have serrated-edged ridges that help them cut through tough plants.  Turtles use their tongues to swallow food, but they cannot, unlike most reptiles, stick out their tongues to catch food.


Could it be that a snapping turtle actually bit our heron?   Could it be one of the two giant turtles I had just seen?  There must be many snapping turtles hidden in the pond.  Is it possible that when our heron was walking in the pond, searching for fish, crawfish, or baby turtles, a giant turtle snapped its toes?



                                                The heron was enjoying its catch, a crawfish, on August 20


Through Google I have found the following description of snapping turtles:

“The snapping turtle can grow to a very large size, 20-40 cm (8-16 inches) on average.  Its shell is dark brown, rough and usually covered in algae.  The snapping turtle can be found in waters ranging from slow moving rivers to stagnant ponds.  Although this turtle has received a bad reputation for allegedly biting swimmers and eating baby ducks, in reality it is very shy in the water and will retreat from anything except lunch.”


Well, this description may fit the two giant turtles quite well.  If it is true, then they must be carnivorous snapping turtles!  I would like to add that they are very dramatic when they make love.  They were not shy at all.  Well, maybe they were really shy, and that’s exactly why they chose the time when the tropical storm Hanna hit Brookside Gardens, when all creatures great and small tend to hide somewhere, to enact their cosmic drama, taking over the whole pond as their playfield.  Little did they know that there was this crazy old man under an umbrella recording their acts into history with his digital camera.  I was secretly happy that our resident heron was not present.  Otherwise, it might foolishly interfere with the primordial acts the two giant turtles were enacting.  In the process, the heron might be even mortally wounded. 


The resident heron showed up in Brookside Gardens intermittently.  I saw a heron as late as November and December, but could not sure whether it was the same heron because the wounded right foot is no longer pronounced in the photos.  Could it have healed itself ?  It must have gone somewhere for the winter afterwards.  I have not seen it again.


I am quite uneasy about what herons and turtles might do to one another.  At one point, I actually called an animal-rescue woman in Rockville for advice about helping the wounded heron.  Nevertheless, I must say that I embrace both herons and turtles, regarding them as integral parts of the universe.  During the 15 billion years of evolutionary history from the primordial particles, through galaxies, stars, planets, to our good earth, things have been born and died.  Turtles appeared on earth about 200 million years ago, and birds and butterflies about 150 million years.  They are all our ancestors in one way or another.  Butterflies may live a few weeks or a few months; great blue herons may live up to 20 some years; and turtles may live 30, 50, 100 years or longer.  We will all die; new lives will be born again; and the universe will evolve further.  While we are living, let us enjoy our lives meaningfully, of course, not as a butterfly, turtle, or heron, but as a good human being.  But we can learn much from our million-years-old ancestors.


I must admit at this point that my enthusiasm for and appreciation of turtles and herons must have been very much influenced by the rich imaginations and speculations found in Lao Tzu’s and Chuang Tzu’s teachings.


As mentioned earlier, turtles symbolize immortality in Taoist philosophies.  It is generally agreed that the symbols of Yin and Yang (the broken and unbroken lines) might have orginated from the cracks of turtle shells or animal bones when they were heated by fire in ancient practices of divination.  It is also interesting to note that the traditional symbol for the relationship between Yin and Yang, as shown below, looks significantly similar to the embrace of the two giant turtles.  Since Yin and Yang are believed to be the fundamental forces and principles of the universe, it may not be too far off when I called it a “primordial cosmic event” when I saw the two giant turtles at Brookside Gardens.  In modern science, we may call it the interplay of male and female or matter and anti-matter or positive and negative energies of the universe.




In Chuang Tzu, there is a famous myth about a giant bird called P’eng ().  It lived in the northern pole of the universe as a giant fish.  One day, it transformed itself into a giant bird.  When it flew from the northern pole to the southern pole, the earth shook; its wings blocked the sunlight; and it flew thousands of miles a day.  It symbolizes the powerful creative/destructive forces of the universe.  It so happens that my father gave me a name that contains the word “P’eng.”  My personal name () literally means “Praising P’eng.”  I often fancy that I were that giant bird, traversing the universe in some way.  No wonder that I have become fascinated with world religions that have speculated about the universe and beyond J


To me, a great blue heron is very much like P’eng.  Anyone who goes to Great Falls would be greatly awed by its beauty and its creative and destructive forces.  The valley can symbolize the womb of the universe as described by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu.  Great blue herons are simply the most majestic and georgeous birds there, as shown in the following photos taken at Great Falls in August, 2011.









Chuang Tzu once told a story about his dream.  One day he dreamt that he was a butterfly, fluttering here and there, in great joy and ecstacy.  Suddenly, he woke up and found that he was Chuang Tzu lying on his bed.  He wondered whether it was really Chuang Tzu who became a butterfly or a butterfly who became Chuang Tzu.  It is in some way similar to the mystery of the metamorphosis and migration of butterflies in their life cycles.


                        Photo taken in the butterfly show at Brookside Gardens on September 1, 2011


Brookside Gardens and Great Falls are like two little universes to me, full of beauties, wonders, puzzles, conflicts, challenges, and possibilitie

© Sung-Peng Hsu 2011