Wildlife & Nature to See in July : Grey Heron

Wildlife to See in July : Grey Heron

This week I was treated to an aerial display across the Cam from the glorious grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the undersides of its wings darkly silhouetted against the evening sky. I was struck by just how large the bird is when seen close-up, especially in comparison to the mallards bobbing below it.

© Laurie Campbell: Grey Heron.

© Laurie Campbell: Grey Heron.

In fact, the grey heron is the largest European heron, with a wingspan of 2m, standing at a height of 1m. If this wasn’t enough to make them stand out on a British riverbank, then their grey plumage and elegant white necks really do the trick. They also have distinctive trailing black head feathers, and bright yellow beaks.

Having been able to recognise these birds from an early age I thought I knew everything about the grey heron, but was recently shocked to discover they eat water voles (and here my loyalty becomes divided! In order to be fair to the furry herbivores, they will be the feature of my August column). Grey herons are also partial to common frogs, mice and a variety of fish. This varied diet makes the heron an adaptable species, and it can be found inhabiting fresh and salt waters, also frequenting garden ponds to empty them of fish. Their hunting can be rather startling, as the birds will often stand stock still for long periods of time, assessing the situation, before a sudden flurry of movement where their sharp beaks are used to best effect.

Their flight and posture is also distinctive, as they generally sit hunched up beside water, and fly in a similarly cramped fashion, with their necks drawn in. Look for these awkward shapes in skies across Britain, in any but the most mountainous of regions, as following a series of mild winters grey heron numbers are high and sightings common. Should you wish to hear its somewhat primitive, throaty call, check the RSPB site.

The grey heron was the first breeding bird to be studied in-depth, organised by Max Nicholson in 1928, which led to the founding of the British Trust for Ornithology. To read more about the life of Max Nicholson, see his obituary by Stephen Moss.

According to Simon Barnes’ How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher, Shakespeare refers to young herons during this quote from Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw”, as ‘handsaw’ is thought to be a contraction of ‘heronshaw’, or a young heron. However, one would like to think that most people would be able to tell these two species apart!April I have promised I will avoid all Easter-related clichés, so I’m afraid no mention of eggs, fluffy chicks, frolicking lambs, etc.

But this doesn’t mean the column can’t be cheerful! And there are few flowers which cheer me more than the beautiful violet. On Friday I took a walk in woodland in Fulbourn (outside of Cambridge) and saw my first violets this year, gleaming in dappled sunshine under the trees. Violets are native to the northern hemisphere, and can vary in colour, although are most recognisable in a Cadbury’s shade of purple or white.

Article by Lizzy Dening You can follow Lizzy on Twitter or go to her website