Strolls along Mill Creek this time of year turn into a staredown with Little Unit

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Little Unit focusus on intruders on Mill Creek.

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Little Unit puts an icy stare on a gawker.

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Shy struggles to maintain a grip on dinner.

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Nora the Schnauzer finds pleasant ways to spend her time along Mill Creek.

At dusk on Monday of last week, the Great Blue Heron that I call "Little Unit," and that I have been watching along Mill Creek for a few weeks, had something caught in his throat.

He (or she?) gagged as if he needed a solid back slap.

Or two.

He gagged for 10-to-15 minutes.

His tall neck knotted. His bright-red tongue scraped back-to-front, back-to-front, etc.

He clearly needed to dislodge whatever did not go down.

I named Little Unit because his long neck and in-your-face demeanor reminds me of Randy Johnson, the 6-foot-9 ex-Seattle Mariner pitcher called the "Big Unit" by the press.

Johnson lacked the piercing yellow eyes of a heron, but he focused with a similar hard-eyed intensity when on the mound.

I recognized Little Unit because of short feathers on his chest and naked pink skin on his shoulders.

Probably a youngster, I figured.

Older Mill Creek herons have fuller chest feathers and thin, dark feathers like pony tails down their napes.

And they have dark shoulder pads.

Oh, and Little Unit challenges Nora the Schnauzer and me. He refuses to fly away when we stalk along the stream for photos.

Sometimes he bravely struts away to the far side of the stream on a weir.

Sometimes, though, he lingers statue-like a few yards away with yellow eyes fixed fiercely on us.

Anyway, I have also named two other herons this fall: Squawk and Shy.

Squawk also appears younger. He's lightly feathered, but he squawks hoarsely and sails to another weir when we approach.

Shy, by contrast, wears streaming grey chest feathers. He also flies, of course, but silently and seldom from one weir to another. He lands on tall streamside snags, sails across the dam or disappears downstream.

Once, however, Shy froze poised to spear a fish and ignored our approach. Surprisingly, he lunged headlong from the weir, almost disappeared into the splash and clamped a 10-ounce bull trout in his beak.

I fired off many frames as he flew to the next weir with the flapping fish. He landed to manipulate the trout into a headfirst-lengthwise swallowing position.

It wasn't easy. He had the fish's head in position twice, but nearly lost it both times.

Finally, he squatted, launched into flight and, as usual, sailed over the bridge at Rooks Park.

Shyness, I figured, made him too nervous to handle the fish while I watched.

I had snapped off about 40 photos of the episode.

On some days lately, all three herons lingered together along the creek. Once, though, Little Unit fished downstream from the Tausick Way Bridge.

In early November, I walked Nora on the unpaved path near the project office. A mink swam toward me. It slipped onto a weir and shook itself. I crept closer, into the tall reed canary grass.

The mink didn't see me.

And Nora, barely a foot tall despite her recent fourth birthday on Nov. 5, never saw it.

The wet, brown mink scurried onto the rocks a few feet away. I snapped close-ups.

Lesser yellow legs have also bobbed for bugs along the weirs and zipped abruptly from one weir to another.

A laughing belted kingfisher recently hovered over the stream within rare camera range. It smacked into the water and burst into the air amid shiny spray with a minnow in its mouth.

Lately, as temperatures drop, we see fewer people along the stream, although Nora continues to meet some who do.

More migrating birds have been showing up, of course, including hooded mergansers and American widgeons.

No matter when we go, from dawn to dusk, we expect to see herons or mink or kingfishers or migrating birds along the stream.

Oh, and lest I forget, after a 10-to-15-minute gagging episode, Little Unit stretched his neck to full length. He closed his beak.

He swallowed and gave us a yellow-eyed stare.

Darkness settled over the water. Nora and I went home.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don's photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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