Nesting Grey Herons

Neil Bygrave (NATURELENS)

Exeter, United Kingdom

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Grey Heron – Ardea cinerea. Devon, UK.

By Michael J Seago:-

Grey herons are among the most familiar of UK water birds. Fresh or salt, clear or muddy each is acceptable so long as it will yield something worthwhile.

The bird doesn’t always wait for quarry but stalks through the shallows with long deliberate strides, neck muscles tensed for spearing.

Eventually a fish will pay the price of carelessness as the heron’s kinked neck is straightened with startling speed and the sharp bill stabs its prey – sometimes several times. At Breydon, herons also known in Norfolk as the marshmen’s harnser, will wade until the body is afloat.

Young waterbirds are taken in hard weather by full-grown birds. A water-rail has been recovered in a heron’s stomach. Mice and rats are eaten and judging by the fur in pellets, many water-voles.

The heron’s breeding season is prolonged. In early February in a mild season, they may be seen soaring over the nesting wood and chasing one another, tilting from side to side and diving head-long. An exciting performance to watch for next to the mute swan the heron is our largest common bird. Endless display takes place on old nest platforms and consists of elaborate neck movements with crest and neck plumes erect and accompanied by bill-snapping and a variety of blood-curdling calls.

For short periods the normally yellow-coloured bill and legs change dramatically to deep orange, especially when a group assembles on the ‘dancing grounds’ running and skipping first in one direction and then another with open wings.

Occupied herons’ nests may be readily told by numerous droppings on the ground beneath them. The pellets are the indigestible portions of heron’s food. Unless blown down by storms the same nest is used each spring. Old ones, massive platforms 3ft across, may also provide homes for nesting tree sparrows.

They are built in the highest trees and constructed by branches and sticks. Local preferences include alder and Scots pine. I’ve seen eggs laid during the last days of February. The young maintain a ceaseless loud clicking call. Three or four is an average clutch, The eggs take 27 days to hatch and the young remain in the nest seven weeks.

Herons suffer greatly during severe weather and the majority of ringing recoveries are in winter. But starvation is not the only cause of death. Recovery reports have included examples ‘caught in telephone wires,’ ‘found dead outside fox’s earth,’ ‘caught on barbed wire’ and ‘shot poaching goldfish’. The longest living individuals have attained 25 years.

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