I friend Michele and I used to go out wildlife watching quite regularly. He’d take his camera, with all the gear on it and I’d take my eyes, being hopeless with cameras. He wanted to take me to a heron or bittern colony, can’t remember which on a very inhospitable wooded river flood plain covered in willow scrub and stones. Because Michele (he’d be so amused to know I was writing this) wanted to have some photos he gave me a camera giving me instructions as to use and what he wanted photographing. I didn’t quite follow his logic wondering why he couldn’t take them but I complied anyway. It took us and I’m not exaggerating here, at least 2 hours to cover the 50 or so yards from the dense cover in the middle of the dry river bed to the colony which was quite high up in some acacia trees. I had expected to see dozens of nests but while there were still quite a few, the majority of the birds were just perched on branches chattering to each other. I had been briefed by my friend not to look at the birds until I was ready to take the photos and that no movement should be any faster than a slug climbing up a bean plant, hence the two hours incursion and the back ache afterwards. One of our hobbies was a local version of counting coup. We would compete with each other for the variety of animals we could touch using knowledge of their habits and stealth. He was amazing with boar and carnivores I was best at deer. Though it was of course a physical thing, it was important to do nothing quickly even when you had touched them to avoid frightening them but it was also a mental thing. If you concentrated too much on the animal it twigged you no matter how quiet you were. Deer have hated me ever since. They get embarrassed very easily. So I was quite well prepared for creeping up on the a bunch of birds.
Anyway, once we got under the colony slowly, very very slowly I pointed the camera, parted the camo netting draped over it and most of me and focused on a bird. Michele was following me so that he could see which bird I was going to photograph and thus get another totally different shot. He told me quite firmly, that when I had taken the shot to get the hell out. One shot he said which was why he had given me the camera. Click and run he said without telling me why. I know they’d fly away because of the click and whirr of the shutter motor but, golly, do herons attack??
I heard him say one two three behind me I aimed the camera, framed the shot and click. Then I turned round to see Michele already ten yards away legging it for all he was worth. Sensing his urgency but not quite grasping the need for speed I set off to follow but being a lot more cool than he is, at a fast amble. Just at that minute a ton and a half of heron squits rained down on me from the treetops. I don’t think I ever remember seeing Michele laugh so much. It got everywhere and the horrible thing is it all came down at the same time. And the smell, urgh! His laughing set me off and we were both rolling around on the sun-baked stones with herons flapping around from branch to branch above us. The mirth soon subsided though because worse was to come. Because it was summer, well if it wasn’t the weather was warm and dry anyway, there was no water in the river and we had a good hour’s walk back to the car and no water there either. By the time we got there the squits had dried and smelt even worse than before. The car stank for days and I think I threw my jacket away because of the persistent pong.
I have never quite trusted herons since but have always wanted to count coup on one – revenge sort of thing.