The elegant heron – supermodel among the predators
PUBLISHED: 08:31 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:07 20 February 2013
Tall, skinny, with legs as long as a supermodel's - herons might not look it, but they're one of the freshwater food chain's top predators
Its late afternoon and were walking down from our cottage to Tarset Burn, a popular stroll when the suns shining and
weve been cooped up in the office all day.
Quite often we spot a couple of red-legged partridges skulking about the sheep field on the corner, bickering half-heartedly like an old married couple. Then theres the little brown wren that bobs about jauntily along the verge. It always seems to be there when we pass.
But the most striking regular sighting, and one that manages to interrupt our flow of conversation, is the resident heron as he flies back from his hunting grounds on the burn to his roost.
He cant help but impress at one metre long and a wingspan nearly double that. Hes certainly unmistakable with his neck folded awkwardly back in on his chest and his feet sticking out clumsily, poker-straight, at the rear.
Its easy to laugh off the heron when
it comes to the looks department. All beak, neck and legs it may well be, but its equally one of the most efficient
and dangerous operators out there on
When it comes to stalking prey, the grey heron, despite looking like a comedy act on stilts with its big feet and ungainly demeanour, is a whole lot smarter than it appears.
Take a closer peek at that long yellow bill and youll see its as slender as a chop-stick on Stowell Street, pointed like a dagger and extremely powerful - perfect in fact for spearing any frog, fish, or unwary vole that comes within reach of its lightning strike.
Used in tandem with that snake-like, S-shaped neck, the herons beak is a brilliant weapon for getting tight hold of moving prey.
If that were not enough the grey heron, one of the UKs biggest birds, also has a specially-adapted neck vertebra that forms a hinge when it thrusts its head forward for extra help when hunting. And while its clod-hopper claws dont exactly look nimble, theyre perfect for supporting the herons
weight when its hunting in marshy, muddy conditions.
By the way of a slight digression if theres a Mr or Mrs Heron reading this, apparently one of the more obvious derivations of this traditional Border Reiver surname is that it was once a
local nickname for any tall, skinny bloke with extra-long pins who looked like, well, a heron
Back now to Tarset Burn. When our resident heron is not out hunting on the riverbank or resting up, he spends an awful lot of his time preening.
Despite the ungainly appearance, herons need to invest time on feather maintenance because they spend so much time in watery habitats. They have special feathers, known as powder down that they comb with a toenail or their beak to release the birds in-built supply of a special absorbent dust - a kind of grey heron talcum powder.
This isnt the only trick these birds have in their cosmetic bag. The females beaks redden during the breeding season, looking just like theyve recently applied a dab of lipstick. In all honesty theyre not that bad-looking, and when you get to see them up close, their pale, grey plumage is much more attractive than it first appears, with flecks of black dappling the neck, and a crest of dark plumes streaming from their head rather like old-fashioned hat-feathers.
In order to prosper, these top predators of the freshwater food chain need two things - good fishing grounds and safe nesting places. There are thought to be around 14,000 pairs of grey herons in the UK compared to the late 1800s when there may have only been about 6,000 grey herons in England and Wales.
The BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) carries out an annual count of grey herons as part of its ongoing Heronries Survey which started way back in 1928. In 2003, to mark the 75th anniversary of these surveys, the BTO carried out a more far-reaching study of the birds that showed heron numbers are now at their highest levels ever. Which is excellent news given that herons are said to be very good indicators of the countrysides environmental well being.
Long-term prospects for grey herons appear pretty good too. Although severe winters like the last can still spell disaster for them - in the early Sixties a particularly harsh freeze is said to have reduced the population by half - the overall trend in their numbers seems to be reassuringly positive.
This is partly due to a decline in illegal persecution by anglers, the good health of many of our rivers nowadays and the creation of new habitat.
If youve ever visited a grey heron colony you wont forget it - the noise can be deafening and you wouldnt want to bottle the smell. Although herons can be solitary most of the time, when it comes to the breeding season in very early spring, they gather in quite big colonies. The largest heronries in the UK boast well over 100 pairs.
The well-known heronry at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust reserve in Washington is said to be the largest nesting colony of grey herons in the north-east, with upwards of 60 birds when conditions are right.
Theres also another big one near Axwell Hall, Blaydon. Last year the herons at Washington had a very good breeding season compared to 2008, with 34 nests and 49 fledged chicks, according to Giselle Eagle, the reserves biodiversity warden. She explains the birds return there each year to nest in numbers partly because the spot is so isolated and the oak and ash hedge where they nest is dense and protected.
Once a pair is ready to breed on the reserve the female spring cleans and rebuilds the substantial stick nest, using twigs and branches brought by her mate, ready for the new seasons brood. A clutch of three or four eggs is usually laid in late February or March and these hatch out around a month or so later.
The parents feed their young until the nestlings fledge. In years when food is thin on the ground its a case of first-hatched, first-served, and the older nestlings survive at the expense of the younger ones.
On their first trips away from the nest to flap and exercise their wings the fledglings climb out along the branches close to home and will often use their beaks like a hook to support themselves.
But at just seven weeks old theyre ready to fly freely within the colony and by nine weeks theyre fully independent, flying off alone to join the rest of our thriving heron population and finding their own perfect fishing spot on riverbanks just like Tarset Burn.
If youd like to get a closer look at a grey heron colony, the WWT Washington reserve is open every day (www.wwt.org.uk/washington).
May is a great time to see them on the reserve, says Giselle Eagle. There will still be some big cumbersome chicks balancing in the nests and you will see adults coming in to feed the young of the second clutches.
You can also see young herons from last year without their crest feathers and this years chicks lining up along the side of the lake. There should be the chance to see them at all different stages.
Grey Heron - Ardea cinerea, Europes biggest heron. The back and wings are grey, while the neck and underparts are white. The head is white with a crest of wispy black feathers.
Distribution - Herons are found through much of Europe, Asia (except in the north-east), through Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Status in UK - Resident breeder/winter visitor. Native herons do not migrate.
Size - Herons are around 94cm long with a wingspan of 185cm and weigh about 1.5kg.
Habitat - Rivers, wetland areas, lakes, estuaries and sheltered part of the shoreline. Herons are most often spotted along rivers.
Diet - Animals, fish, small mammals, amphibians, aquatic crustaceans, reptiles and insects.
Reproduction - Herons nest in tree-top colonies. The female lays three to four eggs in early spring, from as early as mid February to as late as early May. The eggs hatch after 27 or so days incubation and the fledglings will leave the nest after 50 to 55 days.
Call - A kind of fra-ank sound thats quite loud and often heard at dusk when herons make their way to night-time roosts. Herons also make knocking sounds when together in a colony.
Folklore - Many years ago people thought a herons nest was built with two holes in it to accommodate the herons extra-long legs when it was incubating the eggs.
Improve Your Bird Photography in 2010 with Ann & Steve Toon
If youd like to join top wildlife photographers and regular North East Life contributors Ann & Steve Toon photographing native raptors in stunning natural settings and improve your photographic techniques at the same time, the couple are running a series of Hawk & Owl Workshops this year in Penrith, Cumbria on July 9 and 16 and again on September 3. For more information and full details visit their website at www.toonphoto.com