Wildlife - Grey Herons are thriving in Cheshire

Cheshire is one of the best places to see these magnificent birds

Cheshire is one of the best places to see these magnificent birds - Credit: Michael Taylor

They look like something from the distant past but grey herons are thriving here in Cheshire

Flapping slowly across the skies, herons have an almost prehistoric appearance

Flapping slowly across the skies, herons have an almost prehistoric appearance - Credit: Michael Taylor

If you take a stroll in the countryside near water inhabited by fish, you have a fair chance of seeing a grey heron. Provided no potential threat is evident – from say too close a human presence, this striking wading bird can typically be seen either at the water’s edge, or perhaps moving slowly in the shallows. The grey heron is Europe’s largest heron, and it tops the aquatic food chain. Apart from their breeding season – February through to May – they tend to lead solitary lives.

Cheshire is often referred to as the pond capital of the UK, due to its many lakes – or meres, those at Budworth and Tatton perhaps being the most notable. These and other similar locations, such as Macclesfield Forest – bordering Trentabank reservoir near Warrington, are big attractions for the grey heron, especially when the breeding season approaches.

Early in February, they begin to congregate in a secluded area near water; forming a nesting colony, commonly known as a heronry. The nesting population size will usually be dependant on how plentiful the food supply is in that area. In 2005 the heronry at Budworth Mere near Marbury, was recorded as one of Britain’s largest ever, with more than 170 nesting pairs being counted.

The grey heron is a truly impressive wading bird with an unmistakeable appearance. Standing tall on thin legs, a fully grown adult reaches approximately one metre tall. Its head is predominantly white with the exception of a black crown, from the back of which trailing wisps of long feathers fall down the neck.

Birds of a feather nest together, well near one another anyway

Birds of a feather nest together, well near one another anyway - Credit: Michael Taylor

In profile their bill resembles a large, and fearsome, dagger-like weapon which is used to literally spear intended prey. During hunting, the force and speed of the bill’s movement is provided by a long powerful neck, which is mainly white, interrupted only by vertical black lines that almost reach the legs. The remainder of this very large bird’s plumage is essentially grey – hence its given name. Conversely, its cousin the Purple Heron – a rare UK visitor about two-thirds the size of our resident species but with similar characteristic features – is also aptly named, again due to specific areas of its plumage colouring.

While fish is the staple diet, small mammals, amphibians, and birds are also taken. Stealth, in terms of very slow methodical movements, is the primary tactic when hunting for a meal. As a wading bird the grey heron will stand motionless in shallow water or reeds, and simply wait for potential prey to come within range, at which point they strike at great speed to catch their intended victim. Patience is certainly one of their virtues.

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When not hunting, they will often rest with their head and bill in an almost snuggled up, and at first glance, shrunken posture, reminiscent of how a grumpy old man can appear. However, when in flight, their size and impressive wingspan – which can approach two metres, becomes very evident. The wing beats are very slow and lugubrious, their huge wings making gliding effortless. With the head tucked firmly in place, they seem to be a throwback to prehistoric times, having an almost pterodactyl like resemblance.

Grey herons are early nest builders, with initial activity usually beginning around mid-February. The nests can be quite large, and although pairs often use the same one each year, they nonetheless take great care in refurbishing it to their satisfaction, even if major work is required.

Each tree within a heronry may accommodate several nests and inevitably in such close confines neighbourly squabbles can occur. Towards the end of March, a clutch of four or five eggs are laid. These hatch after an incubation period of around 26 days. The chicks are then fed regurgitated fish by their parents and leave the nest after 25 to 30 days, though initially only to clamber around nearby branches. Complete fledging – in terms of flight, occurs some 50 days or so after hatching.

Since 1928, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has carried out an annual heronries census to monitor the UK’s breeding population. Volunteers throughout the country take part, and during April or May they count the number of occupied nests, at as many locations as possible.

Results from the BTO consistently show that Cheshire is ranked as one of the best counties, in terms of heronry numbers within the UK. Further information on the work of the BTO and their census activities, can be found at www.bto.org. n

You can view more grey heron, and other wildlife images, on my website, www.michaeltaylorphoto.co.uk.

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