January 2010 - The Heron


The heron - river Yare at the UEA

One bird I see with great regularity around Bawburgh is the heron. This bird inspires me with its patience and stealth. At rest it stands on one leg with eyes half closed and head hunched between its shoulders, but when hunting this tall grey sentinel stands in the shallows of lake or river (or garden pond given half a chance) poised to strike, head forward, eyes alert, absolutely still. Its reflexes are lightning as it spears an unsuspecting fish, frog or toad, water vole, grass snake or even young water fowl. One day I happened to come across a heron that had just taken a huge eel out of the river. Lucky for the eel, the heron took one look at me and my dog, gave an annoyed loud screech, and gracefully departed with slow wing beats, legs trailing, neck drawn in. I put the eel back in the river to fight another day. Although wounded, it swam off gratefully. The heron eats small fish at one go, head first, but with larger prey such as this eel, the prey is taken to the bank for more leisurely feeding. I often see herons following livestock in the fields around Bawburgh. They get quite close and wait for rodents or beetles and the such like to be disturbed, and are then rewarded with a tasty meal. Herons can range more than twelve miles in the search for food. In days gone by anglers used to think that heronsí feet and legs put out special oil which had the power to attract fish and in this belief they used to rub fat from the bird onto their bait. Of course patience is the true reason for the birdsí success.

Herons nest in colonies (heronries) in trees or reed beds between February and May using the same sites year after year. The nest consists of a platform of sticks or reeds. Each year old nests are pulled apart and the foundations of thick branches or clumps of turf reused, as well as much of the materials that went into the old nests. The male woos the female with a courtship dance, his neck stretched up, then lowered over its back, his bill pointing upwards, a bit like a curtsey. This is followed by a lowering of the head, stretching of the neck and snapping his bill shut. The male chooses the nest site and nest material, the female bird arranges it to her satisfaction. Four or five light blue green eggs are laid at about 2 day intervals, young hatch successively after 25 days incubation, varying considerably in size due to differences in age. Both parents take part in incubating the eggs, and subsequent feeding of the young which leave the nest after 7 to 8 weeks. Juvenile birds are recognised as having totally grey heads later developing the black eye stripe terminating in the long plumes of the adult bird.


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