Wildlife - the stately and solitary Heron

Grey heron in flight

Grey heron in flight - Credit: Archant

Stately and solitary, the heron is one of our most distinctive and familiar birds. Paul Hobson looks into their presence in the county

Grey heron in flight

Grey heron in flight - Credit: Archant

The river wends its way slowly past on its quest to reach the sea. A water vole swims purposefully across, emerging in the midst of a bank of freshwater weeds. The air is so still I can actually hear the vole pulling weeds from the river back into the safety of the bank and then its subsequent voracious nibbling. A swish tells me a fish has just taken an insect that was swirling around on the surface of the water. A kingfisher, that electric blue flash, speeds rapidly up river on its short stubby wings. I love all these things but my attention remains focused on one tall elegant grey fisher.

The heron, whose patience seems inexhaustible, is as still as a statue. I keep watch and notice that the small head atop the long curved neck is slowly arching forwards and is slightly lowered. I hold my breath and wonder if the heron is doing the same – the tension is tangible. Then there’s a sudden explosion of movement. The heron has lunged forward and is now grappling with a fish. A few tosses of the head and the fish, head first, is sliding into obscurity down the long sinuous neck.

The vole has stopped nibbling and I confess I’m glad it wasn’t the heron’s target, for I would then have had really mixed emotions about the event I had just witnessed.

Herons are doing really well in Derbyshire now. It is true that we still have a bit of a love/hate relationship with them because they are such consummate fishermen, as are so many millions of their human counterparts. Conflict will always arise when a bird feeds on something that we either value, favour or love, and fish fall into that category readily. However, in today’s world, it is not necessary to shoot every heron that takes a fancy to your well-loved koi or looks lovingly at the thousands of trout at the fish farm. Modern netting and scarers can be efficient at reducing heron predation and there is always the old trick of placing a plastic heron on your pond to deter the living bird.

Herons are certainly adapting to our modern ways and reduced persecution is opening up new urban areas where they can become amazingly tolerant of humans. It’s now easy to find herons around well walked reservoirs such as Ogston, nonchalantly standing on marina towpaths, or stalking patiently along the banks of urban streams and rivers. The very effective pollution control that we have worked hard on over the last 40 years has seen many dead stinking rivers, such as the Rother, returned to an incredibly healthy state and chock-a-block full of numerous species of fish. Herons, otters and other fish eaters have readily taken advantage of our cleaner waterways.

Herons breed early in the year in largish colonies know as heronries. Those in Derbyshire don’t tend to get as big as some in other parts of the country where over a hundred nests can be counted. Our heronries are smaller, 10 to 15 nests being normal. The beginning of the breeding season is a superb time to witness their elaborate, yet at times boisterous and harsh courtship. The birds will arrive on their nests, their huge sail-like wings breaking their speed as their long legs bend at the knee and the pair lands. Crests, like a delicate Indian headdress are raised, bills snap and clop and their necks often twist in the most dazzling way. It all seems so sedate and delicate, then they call and any sign of delicacy is shattered. Their call is harsh, deep and primeval – once heard it is never forgotten.

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Herons feed mainly on the other creatures that live in their watery world. Fish and eels feature prominently in their diet, alongside water voles, rats, mice, frogs and grass snakes. Eating slimy fish is a sure way of getting your feathers soiled but the heron has a fantastic trick to help keep its plumage fresh and clean. When plucked, special feathers on the breast disintegrate into a powder which the heron then spreads onto its feathers. This powder absorbs oils and fats and is then scraped off by a special serrated edge on one of its toes. A fantastic piece of adaptation.

Since they are such effective fishers, it is no surprise that quite a lot of folklore has built up around the grey heron. In days past some fishermen believed that the birds’ feet could actually attract fish with a special scent that they emitted. They would rub their fishing line with a dead heron’s foot, which they also kept for luck. Clearly it is not true – and certainly was not lucky for the heron.

It is easy to watch herons in Derbyshire. We now have so many exciting water reserves like Willington or reservoirs like Ogston or Ladybower that actually seeing a heron should be fairly straightforward. A walk in many of our towns where a river runs through is also just as likely to offer a glimpse of the grey fisher. The real trick, though, is to put in a bit of time. To get a feeling for the world of the heron you need to sit, watch and wait. Then you also may be witness to that lightning strike as another fish slips down that long, elegant neck.

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