This year I am going to feature a ‘Bird of the Month’ on the blog as the year goes by. This is the first in the series.
My bird of the month for January is the heron. It took me all month to decide. Then on Monday I was walking down by the river and a heron let me get closer to it than usual (usually, they take off with an irritated screech as soon as they are disturbed). It was hunched on the bank, completely still. It struck me how January-like the heron is. It is stern, a little bit hostile. It waits. And waits some more (like January waiting for warmth to return to the soil). It is grey in colour – several shades of grey, like the many shades of a January sky. It is lean. It has a distinctive silhouette just as trees make distinctive shapes against winter skies. The heron is definitely a January bird.
I’ve had a few lovely encounters with herons this January. On two occasions one has flown so close overhead that I felt like I could reach out my fingers and touch it. The first time was a beautiful day. There was fresh snowfall on the ground from the night before that glowed so white in the sunshine that it was hard to look at. The heron was enormous against the cold blue sky. They are massive birds with a wingspan of 1.8 meters. In flight they look prehistoric.
I love to see a heron but I don’t identify with them at all. They have a stillness and self control that is beyond me. The way they wait, feet in shallow water, endlessly patient, until a fish comes close enough to spear with that yellow dagger-beak. They are solitary figures. Statue-esque. Physically impressive and almost a little sinister. I once saw one standing on a picnic bench with a cohort of ducks around it on the ground. It was like a cartoon evil emperor.
We once spent a long time watching a heron fishing at the salmon ladder in Pitlochry. When eventually it made it’s move and took a fish it threw its head back and gulped the fish down whole in one motion. I’m not sure what that heron would have had to do to secure the fishing rights at a salmon ladder but I am sure it would have worked hard for that right.
Herons cease their solo lives at breeding time which begins in February and peaks by the end of March. They build big, messy, twiggy nests high up in the treetops – sometimes 25 meters from the ground. These are called heronries. There can be up to 10 nests in one tree. They are one of the first birds to nest and breed each year and therefore an excellent sign of imminent spring.
There’s a wonderful poem about the heron in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane. One verse goes:
Out of the water creaks long-legs heron,
old priest heron, from hereon in all sticks
and planks and rubber-bands, all clanks
and clicks and rusty squeaks.”
It describes the way that heron is hunched until it is not. Then it is away, like a model of a flying machine made from spare parts, creaky and ungainly but elegant and awesome.
Two things about herons you might not know:
- Herons do mainly eat fish but they also like ducklings, voles and amphibians. Ever seen a heron standing in a field or on the road? After harvest they go looking for a meal of rodents.
- The plastic decoy herons that you see in gardens don’t actually put herons off fishing in garden ponds. If anything, they encourage them. The only certain way to prevent herons feasting on your koi is netting over the pond. I’d rather see a heron in my garden than a fancy goldfish anyway.
Thank you for being my Bird of the Month, Mr Heron, Old Man of the River. I am determined to do some large scale drawings of you soon.