Experienced anglers know that catching fish is a waiting game. Occupy the right place for long enough and success will come.
Words: Ross Bentley Photos: Ron Smith
There is one bird seen throughout Suffolk which takes patience to levels rarely seen among our native wildlife. This creature is the mysterious grey heron: the gangly inhabitant of watery landscapes; a lakeside loiterer; a prowler of ponds.
I have been looking out for herons of late and studying their ways. Most recently, I saw one on the Butley River near Bawdsey, standing ankle deep in water, erect and waiting for a fish to pass within striking range of its dagger-like beak; much like a spear-fisherman with a sharpened harpoon.
I also see herons on my local patch near the River Stour: one time walking along the hedge line, taking long strides like John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks. Often, I see him simply sat in the middle of a field, his long neck tucked into his chest, watching silently like an old man in a raincoat waiting in a lockdown queue.
Most times, this ability to just be gets the better of me. I soon tire of waiting for the bird to do something and decide to move on. Herons, it seems to me, inhabit their own paradigm; one where time is measured differently. As poet Sorley MacLean put it: they are “like a mind alone in the universe.”
But despite this lack of activity, I am drawn to herons.
There is a majesty about this most distinctive of birds but also a ruthless efficiency that some find distasteful. Herons do not just take fish, but also amphibians, and even small birds, such as moorhen chicks and ducklings, and mammals like water voles and moles. Sometimes, they will swallow prey alive – expanding their throats like a python on stilts, before flying to a quiet spot to sit and digest their meal.
In medieval times, people thought that herons had supernatural powers and that they could magically attract fish to them. Fishermen would carry a heron’s foot with them for good luck while fat from the unfortunate bird was spread along the fishing line in the hope it would improve the chances of hooking dinner.
For me, it is when a heron takes to the air that they become truly beguiling. They are big birds, standing around a metre tall, but with one flap of their oversized wings they are off. Moving slowly and deliberately, often giving out a ‘Fronkkk’ call, which has earned them the nickname Old Frank in these parts. They fly with neck tucked in, beak pointed out front and strands of black plumage waving behind the head. They look prehistoric, a throwback to the pterodactyls of deep time.
And over the eons that herons have stalked this land, they have evolved some incredible adaptions.
The heron’s sixth vertebra has become modified, so the neck can be held in an S-bend during flight and drawn back to strike prey with that lethal yellow bill. Underneath its long, straggly breast feathers, the heron has what is called powder down – feathers that produce an oily substance, which it spreads across its body to stay clean and waterproof. Incredibly, herons have a pectinate toe on each foot; a ribbed digit like a comb that has evolved for such a job.
And it is not just me who enjoys seeking out grey herons. Every year since 1928, the Thetford-based British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has undertaken a nationwide count of heron nest sites, or heronries, as they are known. This annual tally holds the title for being the longest-running single species census in the world.
“Herons are top of the food chain, how well they are doing tells us a lot about the quality and health of the environment,” says Mick Wright, who has been overseeing the heronry count in Suffolk for the best part of 40 years.
Most of us, when we see a heron, will see a single bird but during the nesting season, which is early spring, they come together in colonies; discreet treetop gatherings, much like rookeries, where they raise their young. Mick calculates there are roughly 100 nests spread across 14 heronries in Suffolk. He says when he first started counting back in the 1980s he would see colonies of up to 40 nests but these days a colony of 10 to 12 nests is the largest he encounters.
Mick tells me he has never seen herons fighting over territory and that they will happily share space. He recalls seeing around ten herons “stationed at intervals like soldiers” in a dyke near a heronry close to the River Orwell.
Loss of habitat and the intrusion of people are key reasons why heronries are shrinking although the population has kept relatively stable because of the warmer winters we are now experiencing.
“Heron numbers can be hit badly during a cold winter, as the rivers and inlets ice over and they can’t fish,” adds Mick.
The impact of climate change, whereby our winter months tend to be more temperate, may be one reason why we are also seeing a rise in the number of birds related to herons settling in Suffolk. Fifteen years ago, little egrets would have been a rare sight here, but today these beautiful birds from the Mediterranean – herons in miniature and pure white – are now established in the county with six colony nest sites recorded.
I recently sat and watched a little egret going about its business in an area of flooded woodland at Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Lackford Lakes reserve near West Stow. They fish differently to grey herons: shuffling around the shallows, using their oversized, bright yellow feet to disturb the mud and flush out invertebrates and small fish.
At RSPB Minsmere, Ian Barthorpe believes the big cousin of the little egret, the great white egret will follow the same trend and become a familiar part of the landscape a generation from now. For the moment, these magnificent birds – again pure white but the same height as our grey heron – are scarce and any sighting a noteworthy occurrence. I’ve been lucky on several occasions, most memorably watching in awe as a great white egret circled over the RSPB Lakenheath Fen reserve, climbing higher with each languid beat of its wings – its glorious serenity in stark contrast to the frequent ear-splitting sound of fighter jets taking off from the nearby air base.
Ian tells me it is because of the good work of the RSPB and Suffolk Wildlife Trust in maintaining and creating new wetland habitats (Lakenheath Fen opened in 1995) that egrets are now attracted to our part of the world and making their home in Suffolk. But conservationists also point to another more sinister factor that has prevented egrets arriving on these shores until now. Just over a century ago egrets were almost hunted into oblivion in Europe and the USA for their wonderful feathers. Birds were killed in their tens of thousands, so their highly-prized white plumes could adorn the fashionable hats of the day. A specific style of hat was even called an aigrette – the French word for egret. The RSPB, in fact, grew out of a campaign to ban milliners from using feathers in this way.
Ian is stationed at the breath-taking RSPB Minsmere reserve on the Suffolk coast, a stronghold of another of the heron’s cousins: the bittern. What a strange and wonderful bird it is, more compact that the heron, its tawny flecks camouflaging it against the reeds where it hides. Its is so elusive that experts count bitterns by listening out for their distinctive booming call – a sound that puts it among the loudest birds in Britain.
Bitterns were extinct in Britain in the nineteenth century and as recently as 1997, there were only 11 booming males recorded across the whole of the country. Today, there are 11 males at Minsmere alone from a country-wide total of 185 but conservationists are not getting complacent.
“Bitterns are still among the most vulnerable species in the UK because they are limited to wet reedbed habitat, and it won’t take much to see numbers dip again,” says Ian.
“Suffolk is synonymous with bitterns and Minsmere plays a critical role in their conservation.”
More important conservation work is being carried out at nearby Havergate Island – Suffolk’s only island, offshore from Orford. Here, this year, rare spoonbills, which are in the same family as herons, successfully raised chicks for the first time in Suffolk since 1668. The RSPB have been working over the last 15 years to encourage spoonbills to breed on the island.
Named after their long spatula- shaped bill, which they sweep side-to-side through water for food, spoonbills are a rare breeding bird in the UK. Before 1999, there had been no confirmed sightings since the 17th century but these days up to 100 spoonbills visit the UK every year.
“We never gave up the hope spoonbill fledglings would take that very first, special flight from Havergate island once again,” says Aaron Howe, RSPB South Suffolk sites manager.
“During lockdown, we heard time and time again from people how they reconnected with the wildlife on their doorstep like never before. We hope the news that these rare and incredible birds had a breakthrough after 15 years work will help raise people’s spirits.”
This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of the Suffolk Magazine.