Sunday 2 November 2008

Herons - Not What They Used to Be...

After yesterday's relentless rain, a morning of pale pearly sunlight, diffused through thin cloud. As I crossed the park, this light was showing the still rain-wet autumn trees to glorious effect; the willows in particular, leaves shimmering, seemed barely substantial. Nearer at hand, the fiery reds of cherry and maple, set off by dark masses of yew... By the river a man was throwing bread to the ducks - and to the resident heron, who was eagerly fighting off the competition, grabbing chunks of bread and knocking them back with a fling of the head. This is something I never thought, in my younger days, I'd see. Then a heron was a notable sight - a strange lanky outsize thing in the middle distance, unpacking an improbable quantity of wing and flapping heavily away. I remember I once found, bizarrely, a heron's skull, picked quite clean, by a river bank. I kept it for some while, even did a drawing of it, which I think I still have somewhere...
The heron then was strictly a country sight - though this was not always so. Herons are still a presence in W.H. Hudson's Birds of London, and he recalls the great herneries that lasted into the closing years of the 19th century, despite the best efforts of chaps with guns. But in the following century, with the Thames polluted and the wild wet places disappearing, herons, along with cormorants and kingfishers, left town, returning decades later to a cleaner river with plentiful fish. The next stage of the great reconquest came about with the spread of the Eighties fad for 'water features' (remember Charlie Dimmock?) and garden ponds, offering rich pickings for an early-rising heron. Now this spectacular bird is a commonplace sight of suburban London - and has so far lost its dignity as to take bread as if it were a municipal duck. I shouldn't really be surprised - this particular heron, which haunts the ponds as well as the river, has always seemed pretty useless at fishing, spending most of its time slouching around to no useful effect, and fixing humans, even at very close range, with a beady and fearless eye. It seems it has got our measure - we're there to provide the food. Though I wonder if herons can thrive on bread alone...


  1. What a wonderfull description of an autumn walk Nige, I was there with you. The heron is a bird that is part of our daily lives, my neighbour and myself are the fortunate owners (custodians) of large ponds and living fairly close to the Tweed have become part of the local heron populations circuit. Long ago they decimated the trout population, the ponds are fed by a burn, the minnows and stickleback rarely have a chance to grow, surprisingly a fairly large number of frogs survive the herons beak. Our major problem is that we have a very large resident population of crested newt (a fact that we have never divulged to the local nature nags). The heron consider these to be a particular delicacy although the newts only really appear at spawning time. Between us we have a number of pairs of moorhen who supply a constant source of munch upons, in the form of chicks, to both the heron and the resident stoats.
    The heron often perch in the oak or birch trees at the back of the ponds for hours, no doubt busy with toothpick in claw. Although described as the silent killer of the marshes, when the do call (screech) the effect is blood curdling.
    The most unusual sight I have seen was some years ago on the banks of the Tweed at Mertoun bridge, at least two dozen young heron gathered together, I wonder if BO could explain? No doubt he would say that was a herendous number.

  2. Thanks Malty - your herons sound a whole heap more hard-working than the Carshalton spiv. Apparently the collective noun for herons - for which there must be little call, as you imply - is siege, or sedge, or hedge. Hmmm...

  3. There have always been plenty of herons in Battersea Park and they nest there too, so I wonder if they ever quite abandoned inner London. And, no doubt, from time to time they provide " a festive dish" for desperadoes forced to camp out under the bushes. My brother saw what he thought was a peregrine falcon eating a crow at the end of his drive today. It was too big to be a sparrowhawk and the wrong shape and colour for a buzzard. My guess is that it could have been a goshawk, this being in leafy Hampshire. If it was a peregrine, it sounds pretty far from expected haunts by way of cliffs or church towers. The great thing is that there's still plenty of mystery at our garden gate even in this overcrowded corner of the isle.

  4. It is almost uncanny, Nige, how closely your Sunday walk did replicate my own - across the fields in the vicinity of North Mimms. Nor are the local Herons of the sort to fall behind an emerging trend. They have long since taken to catching mice (or moles?) rather than fishing in the near-by brook. And no frog, dead or alive, has ever caught their eye. Though it is massively to the credit of a resident pair kingfishers that a rural tradition is still upheld. For what was once genuinely rural, has become mock-rustic, and if there’s any fishing to be done, it is for golf-balls....they come tumbling down the stream - scores of them every day - if you can be bothered....

  5. Wow -- great posts all. First Nige's bucolic saunter among the sedge of herons, then the four following.

    Apparently herons are "weedy species" -- as are humans, sharks, roaches, and gingko trees. We are adaptable. Change the environment, change our food source, even change the weather, and we'll rise to the occasion. David Quammen is the guy who has written so well about this. In a time of mass species extinction, the heron won't be a casualty.

    But, Malty, do they really eat other birds? I thought herons just ate fish. More adaptability if they're happy to eat fowl as well as fish and apparently flesh. No doubt they'll try Selena's golf balls too.