Hand coloured linocut of a Heron at Stowe Gardens
Herons are very beautiful birds but I can’t see one without remembering a very embarrassing moment. We were tucking into breakfast at an hotel near Minsmere and the room, which overlooked beautiful landscaped gardens, was full of 'birders'. It was therefore a horribly expert audience that heard me shout, ' Look a heron...there in the pond', but even as the last word came out I realised that, although I had spotted a Heron, it was an ornamental concrete one. As everyone glanced out a sparrow landed on its beak.
The Grey Heron used to be the only member of its family found regularly in Britain, apart from the local and rare Bittern, but that's all changing as no less than three species of white egret are increasing. The Cattle Egret and its more elegant cousin the Little Egret both nest here now, mostly in the south and west, and the impressive Great White Egret is on the up too. Also, Purple Herons nested for the first time at Dungeness and - even more remarkably - Spoonbills formed a colony at Holkham in Norfolk. Spoonbills had been extinct here for 300 years. It's thought that global heating is encouraging these more southerly species to stay.
Although everyone knows Herons are birds of rivers and lakes, if you've got a pond with fish, even in a town, you're quite likely to get an early morning visit from this most expert fisherman. In mid-summer when they have young to feed, herons know that goldfish and koi are easy prey and they are capable of emptying a garden pond in a few days.
Herons eat all sorts of creatures, with a particularly liking for frogs, and recently one spoiled their species’ image somewhat when a photo appeared in the national press showing it spearing and gulping down an cute baby rabbit. But they are primarily fishermen and are capable of managing more than just tiddlers too; one Draycote Water bird I saw took nearly half an hour to swallow a hefty two-pound rainbow trout.
If you’ve ever spent a night in a tent near a heronry in spring you’d have no doubt that birds are descended from dinosaurs. From first light the young Herons make an unbelievable noise - wild squawks, wails, grunts and moans - just the sort of soundtrack that you'd expect from a colony of pterodactyls. The nests are topped up with new sticks and branches every year and even high in the tree tops, they look huge.
Herons are one of my my favourite birds to draw as they strike such fantastic poses when fishing, patiently stalking the shallows while searching for prey before freezing and snatching a fish with a lightning dart of their snake-like necks.
Herons seem to be doing well in Britain, thanks mainly to the more enlightened attitude of landowners who increasingly appreciate their decorative value, even if it is at the expense of a few fish. If you want to get really close to Herons, try looking around the locks and weirs of the Thames where they seem to be particularly tame.
First published in Four Shires Magazine