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London’s icons: Herons

April 18, 2014

These articles were originally published in the Lost In London book, available here

Characterised by long, snaking necks, dagger-like bills and an elegant, stealthy gait, herons are a widespread and well known family across the world. London is home to three very different heron species, each with its own urban story to tell. While many may know of their presence, few are aware that the capital is one of the very best places in the country to get up close and personal with all three; indeed, London is blessed with a handful of heron hot-spots that are the envy of many much leafier (and wetter) counties across the UK.

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea

Grey Herons are a common British bird found throughout the country, but despite their abundance and familiarity, they remain an impressive, almost prehistoric vision juxtaposed against the inherently tamed backdrop of our urban surrounds. The sight of a bird lumbering lazily over rooftops or frozen statuesque in the shallow waters of a local park lake brings an affirming sense of timelessness to a strictly contemporary landscape.

Like many of their congeners, Grey Herons are expert anglers, exercising a deadly accuracy so fast as to be scarcely visible to the human eye; however, inkeeping with their general adaptability, they’re just as capable of taking other prey, including amphibians, small mammals and even other birds. Hence, the often relentless and apparently pointless mobbing herons receive from local crows and gulls isn’t quite as paranoid as it may seem.

In flight, Grey Herons are easily told by their relative size (dwarfing almost all other birds in London’s airspace), their gangly legs trailing untidily behind them, and their characteristically long neck retracted into a tight S shape when on the wing.

They frequent almost anywhere a potential meal may be found, from reservoirs and rivers to small garden ponds, canals and even drier habitats if the menu looks promising. For breeding purposes however, the capital’s Grey Herons favour larger waterbodies with wooded islands, fashioning elaborate stick nests within the upper branches. Safety in numbers applies, and they’re most often found in colonies (heronries), where nests are positioned uncomfortably close to each other, often resulting in territorial squabbles.

Having adapted particularly well to life in the city, they can be found across London wherever suitable habitat exists, and it’s no great challenge to find them; but for the real deal, a visit a heronry in the spring is a must. Of these, arguably the most entertaining and easy to enjoy is the colony in Regent’s Park. As a species they can be remarkably tolerant, but the birds occupying the park exhibit a tameness and approachability verging on the comical.

And yet, there can be few birds more aesthetically connected to our notions of their evolutionary path, and with their impassive, cooly predatorial expression, to look into the hypnotic iris of a close-up Grey Heron is look directly into its dinosaurian past.

Little Egret Egretta garzetta

Go back only a couple of decades, and the arrival of a Little Egret within the city limits would’ve provoked mass hysteria and hastily-arranged sick days; formerly a supremely rare bird in the capital, it must’ve made for a breathtaking sight, illuminating the darkest of days in 1980’s London. In recent times, however, this wonderfully exotic heron has become increasingly frequent, and while a sighting still automatically quickens the pulse, Little Egrets are now very much part of our avifauna.

Go back even further (to the late nineteenth century), and the British conservation movement owes a great debt to Little Egrets, or more accurately, the women who chose to defend them. Strikingly beautiful at any time of year, Little Egrets don an ostentatious breeding plumage that includes intricate, wispy crown plumes, highly prized among numerous wealthy Victorian fashion victims.The predictable result was a widespread and systematic slaughter; far less unpredictable, however, was the response this provoked amongst a group of women who, outraged, began their ultimately successful campaign by duly forming the Society for the Protection of Birds. Today’s RSPB had an illustrious beginning indeed.

London records of this sublimely elegant heron have increased in line with the species wider range expansion, and while it remains an uncommon visitor to most wetlands, there are however a handful of sites that are particularly favoured by them. Double figure counts are no longer unusual at Rainham Marshes on the Thames, and Amwell gravel pits in the north of the city is particularly good for gaining excellent views of this unmissable species at close quarters.

Over the last few years, Little Egrets have begun to breed in London. Not, as might be expected for such an auspicious debutante, at an expansive, flagship nature reserve or a lush, rural wetland on the fringes of the city, but in the post-industrial urban landscape of Walthamstow Reservoirs in the heart of East London. Their low key, almost clandestine colonisation has occurred not to a widespread fanfare but almost under the radar, and their choice of location isn’t quite as unusual as it may first appear; in fact, it makes perfect sense on several levels.

With Walthamstow’s resident Grey Herons as the perfect cover and protection, Little Egrets have set up camp within the heronry which dominates the wooded islands on the reservoir’s southern side, blending in surprisingly well, and often proving hard to find amongst the throng (no mean feat for a relatively large, glaringly white bird). As local schoolkids proudly intimated after seeing their special neighbours for the first time last year – where better for a freshly-arrived population to thrive than amongst a raucous, bustling and diverse East-End community?

(Eurasian) Bittern Botaurus stellaris

The Bittern is the only one of the three species that doesn’t (as yet) breed in the capital, but it’s nonetheless very much a local speciality; indeed, of the three, it’s by far the most likely to tempt non-Londoners inside the M25 and towards our urban nature reserves, and with very good reason.

Bitterns are one of those few British birds that somehow transcend the harshness of science and exude an almost magical aura; other-worldly, enigmatic, even vaguely absurd, they’re more Lewis Carroll than Darwin, and when adopting their exotic, snake-charmed disguise, almost as reptilian as they are avian.

Superficially suggesting an owl when airborne, with a lazy flight-style on rounded, broad wings and a similar overall plumage pattern, Bitterns clearly betray their heron family ties with characteristic features including the recoiled neck, dagger-shaped bill and long, trailing legs.

Extremely secretive by nature, Bitterns require extensive, undisturbed reedbeds in which to breed – a rare habitat, even more so since the wholesale drainage of marshland and subsequent modern farming techniques. Hence, there are precious few places in the country where Bitterns breed with any regularity, and high profile, targeted conservation efforts are required to keep the expansive swathes of Phragmites in the condition that meets their specific requirements.

With such a combination of scarcity, secrecy and camouflage, their needle-in-a-haystack reputation is rarely contradicted, and often the only indication of a summer presence is via their eery, booming call echoing across a handful of protected and undisturbed fens and marshes. Come the autumn, however, and a number of European birds habitually head for our shores, and more specifically our relatively mild, maritime climate; with the complexities of the breeding season navigated, smaller areas of suitable habitat suffice.

They are, however, far from predictable; thus, that London has several places which are almost guaranteed to harbour Bitterns every winter is extraordinary, and more than enough reason to get out of bed on a cold January morning. The London Wetland Centre is increasingly popular with the species, and the Bittern watchpoint in the Lea Valley provides unrivalled opportunities to catch up with this famously elusive visitor at wonderfully close quarters.

All words and pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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