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 Grey Heron - Fact File

Grey heron in flight

Ardea cinerea
Common resident throughout most of Britain and Ireland. Some continental birds also winter here.
All kinds of waters, from estuaries and marshes to lakes in city parks.

Tall with long legs and neck, and grey and white plumage, yellowish legs and bill. During breeding, legs and bill can become redder. In flight looks very large with broad, arched wings.

94 cm (37")

Grey Heron

Gaunt grey herons are among the most familiar of our local 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.

In the days of commercial shipping to Norwich, these very successful fishermen regularly patrolled the waterway following the coasters and on the look-out for damaged fish. Without hesitation the herons alighted on the water before swimming towards their prey.

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.

Grey HeronFor 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, but I've seen six eggs in a nest near Reedham. The eggs take 27 days to hatch and the young remain in the nest seven weeks.

The history of some Norfolk heronries is well documented. One of the oldest and perhaps most famous for the 'sport' its herons provided falconers is at Didlington. It is still occupied today.

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.

Not all herons are sedentary risking starvation in cold spells. Locally ringed birds have been recovered in winter in France, Spain and Portugal when emigrants marked in Norway and Sweden appear in Norfolk. Flights of incoming herons are an annual autumn feature along the coast.

.By Michael J Seago

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.