An Eye for Herons

Lance Ekhart’s magnificent obsession

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Everything is covered in shit. Everything.

The ground, ferns, nettles, fallen logs and every leaf on every tree is coated with a patina of white heron droppings. Lance Ekhart, heron photographer extraordinaire, stands motionless in the forest—literally deep in the shit.

Here on Samish Island, Ekhart is documenting one of the greatest concentrations of herons anywhere on Earth; with a total of 373 nests (according to Skagit Land Trust counts) in this heronry, perhaps 1,000 birds.

Although we’re only a few hundred meters from the road, we have entered a different world. The herons jostle for position above us with much flapping of immense wings and crashing of branches. The air is filled with pterodactyl-like screeching—these primitive birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. The ambiance is decidedly Jurassic.

Ekhart has been coming to this obscure spot for a long time, working on a multimedia project he is calling “Eye of the Heron.” He has captured 20,000 still photos, 120 videos and more than 100 hours of high-quality digital sound recordings. Today he has hauled two digital cameras, eight lenses, three tripods and two digital sound recorders into the woods. He is committed.

“I’m out to capture the glint in the heron’s eye,” Ekhart explains. “It’s all about the eyes.”

The heron project began by chance. Ekhart, a longtime nature photographer, was giving a slideshow at the Anacortes Public Library, and his beautifully detailed portraits of birds came to the attention of the Skagit Land Trust’s heron stewards. His current access to the herons is made possible by the trust, thanks to the conservation easement they hold on this private land, which is not open to the general public.

Ekhart visits the nesting sites two or three times a week in season. For every hour that he spends in the field, he spends three or four at the computer. The process is all-consuming; editing and integrating the images, video and sound is a herculean task. It has become a central focus of his life. His goal is the creation of “an artistic documentary blending reverence with the craziness of all these birds.”

His photographs paint an evocative picture of his subjects, capturing the massive adult birds, wings outstretched, launching themselves into the air, as well as the oddly comical chicks, all beak and wild eyes. In addition to the multimedia project, Lance is hoping to publish a coffee-table book.

This morning we are waiting for the spectacle of the heron’s breakfast ritual. The tide is low in nearby Samish Bay, and soon the adults will be returning with the chicks’ morning meal—shiner perch, gunnels (an eel-like fish), sculpin and other small morsels foraged from the eelgrass beds. These beds—critical to the marine ecology—have been shrinking, imperiling the bird’s food supply. Eelgrass requires shallow water to grow and these coastal areas have been under pressure from marine development.

Ekhart’s documentation of the heron rookery represents a notable success story in the realm of citizen science, work done by non-scientist volunteers under the guidance of professional biologists. The work is made possible by his commitment to the project.

“In Eastern cultures, herons represent patience,” Ekhart notes with a chuckle as he carefully aims his massive camera lens toward a trio of birds lined up like an ungainly chorus line on an overhanging branch. The light isn’t right, so he waits.

“They’ve certainly taught me a lot about patience,” he says, settling in for the long haul.

Want to help protect and monitor Skagit County’s herons? Visit for info on this and other citizen science projects. For more details about Ekhart’s photographs, go to

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