Bugwoman on Location – Regent’s Park, London

Young Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Young Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Dear readers, you will know from previous posts that when I go to visit a zoo I am usually more interested in the wild creatures than the tame ones. So it is not surprising that for some years I have been fascinated by the Grey Herons that visit the penguin and flamingo pools at London Zoo. They stand amongst the Rockhoppers and the Humboldts, confusing the tourists and no doubt costing the zoo a small fortune in herring.

Heron and Humboldt Penguin

Heron and Humboldt Penguin

These are truly wild birds – there is a heronry in the middle of the boating lake in Regent’s Park, with a dozen enormous nests. There are no signs of breeding activity just yet, but I intend to visit later in the spring to provide an update.

Regent's Park Heronry. No signs of activity just yet.

Regent’s Park Heronry. No signs of activity just yet.

Herons are something of a success story, for once. There are an estimated 13,000 breeding pairs in the UK, approximately 65,000 individuals, and they are the commonest large predatory bird in the UK. Their success is largely due to the vast improvement in water quality, the same change which has benefited all manner of creatures, from trout and salmon to otters. Looking after an ecosystem like a river or a lake has positive effects for everything that uses it.

When in flight Grey Herons look to me like pterodactyls who have somehow become misplaced in time. Their presence is often announced by the angry cries of other birds, especially crows, who seem to bear herons a particular animosity.

Grey Heron in flight (By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Grey Heron in flight (By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Grey Herons are tremendous fishermen, patient, fast and efficient.  Such is their success that it was once believed that the feet of herons secreted a fish attractant, and so human fishermen would sometimes carry a heron’s foot for good luck. Not such good luck for the heron, obviously.

Herons will also eat amphibians and small mammals.For a while, I was Treasurer of the wonderful Culpeper Community Garden in Islington. I was told that a heron would pay an occasional visit to the garden’s pond during the time when the frogs were breeding. The bird would throw the frogs into the air one at a time, catch them in his beak and swallow them, sometimes eating twenty in a sitting. Then he would relax for a while, looking around with perfect equanimity before taking off with a few powerful wing strokes and disappearing. He only appeared when the frogs were around, and the person that I spoke to was convinced that the heron had a mental calendar of what food was available when. And who knows? Herons can live for up to twenty-five years, and strike me as quite capable of performing such a calculation.

Heron Blog 17There is something very fine about the appearance of an adult Grey Heron, with his long thin crest of dark feathers and his piercing barley-sugar eyes.

Heron Blog 19Heron Blog 22Of course, those fine feathers don’t look after themselves, and herons spend a lot of time contorting themselves into yoga positions in order to reach those awkward feathers on their backs or under their wings. Herons have special feathers on their breasts called ‘Powder Down’ – these feathers, when crushed, produce a kind of chalk which absorbs all the fish oil, scales and other secretions that are inevitable when you eat a lot of eels and other slimy creatures. The bird spreads the powder through its feathers, and then scrapes it off with a serrated claw.

Heron Blog 10Heron Blog 7Heron Blog 16There is something very thrilling about seeing such a large bird close up.The Grey Herons at the Zoo were completely unconcerned by the human visitors, even those slightly-scruffy female ones who almost dropped their cameras in an attempt to capture their distinctive beauty. The herons only raised their heads in interest when a member of the zoo staff, wearing a distinctive green jumper, stepped into the exhibit.Surely this meant that feeding time was at hand? But alas, it was a false alarm, and the zoo keeper was just there to clean up. Normality returned, and the herons settled back into placid watchfulness.

Heron Blog 13A few years ago, I was drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen of my house in East Finchley and was gazing idly out of the kitchen window when a pair of long, dangly legs began to descend slowly towards my pond. I almost spat out my breakfast in shock. A heron!  But the descent was short-lived, because no sooner had the tip of the bird’s toe broken the surface when a pair of crows appeared from nowhere, cawing and cackling and flapping and harassing the heron so much that it broke off and flew back up again, pursued across the rooftops and gaining height all the time. It must have been the shortest heron visitation in living memory, which was just as well for my frogs.

Heron Blog 15It is said that captured herons are dangerous birds, and that even the young ones will not hesitate to peck directly at the eyes of their captor if given a chance. One rash fellow who, for some reason known only to himself, grabbed a heron found that the heron took hold of his nose in a piercing grip and refused to let go. A mad dance ensued, which would probably have been quite amusing to watch were it not for the danger to all involved. The man only managed to get the heron to release its grip by strangling it. Let us hope that it taught him never to mess with a Grey Heron again.

Heron Blog 18 In some parts of the country, there is a tradition that, on meeting a heron, one should tip one’s hat and wish it good morrow. How refreshing it would be to greet a wild animal in just the way that you would greet a neighbour! Because, after all, we are neighbours, and whilst the heron might be indifferent to my appearance in his territory, I am certainly very glad to have made his acquaintance.









10 thoughts on “Bugwoman on Location – Regent’s Park, London

  1. Maria F.

    I love these Great Blue Herons (it’s how they are called in the U.S.); I once rescued an Anhinga (a cormorant-like bird in the U.S.), and the bird almost pierced my eye, I’m not kidding. Never think yourself capable of handling these large birds; they use their beaks as spears and will try to pierce YOU. After this experience I know better that if I must rescue one from danger, I HAVE to hold the beak with one hand first and then with the other hold the bird. Their beak is their defense mechanism, so they will use it any way they can.

  2. Bug Woman Post author

    Hi Maria, Anhinga are gorgeous birds, but as you say, these creatures are much stronger and faster than we imagine. Well done for rescuing it even so! And of course, the poor bird doesn’t know that we’re trying to help it, not murder it, so it will use all the weapons at its disposal. Incidentally, herons will also regurgitate their dinner all over you, which isn’t much fun either 🙂

    1. Maria F.

      I love Anhingas, and their ‘drying feather’s display’ is even more spectacular than that of the Cormorants, because they spread their wings really far out and their neck is very flexible (hence their nickname ‘snake bird’), and their beaks are extremely pointy and sharp. I rescued a fledgeling that was sleeping close to the alligators territory. Your images of the heron are great!

  3. John Wooldridge

    They are a wonderful and clever bird Bugsy, I used to see them all over the summer when I used to fish, early morning they would be lined up on the banks of the Weaver with the river’s mist swirling around their legs. I’ve seen one take a rabbit once and I’ve heard that about a secretion off their legs before. Back before my life turned turtle I had an ornamental pond and I always knew when a Heron had visited….not by the lack of fish but by an oily smear on the waters surface so perhaps there may be a grain of truth in it?

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi John, what an evocative picture of the herons standing in the river mist….they have a kind of watchful stillness about them, coupled with that sudden stab that is always a shock, even when you know it’s coming. And yes, how interesting about the oily smear…..it wouldn’t be the first old tale that’s turned out to be true. Science often lags behind what people have been noticing for generations.

  4. Katya

    What glorious pictures to see! I was heartened to know that the presence of visiting birds at the London Zoo and Regent’s Park, while maybe not entirely wanted, is at least tolerated. Would that this same regard were extended to those rare, wild birds in the UK that are still hunted, some almost to extinction. I came across a distressing article recently in The Guardian about the unfortunate fate of Hen Harriers in Scotland. I know many oppose this barbarity, so thank you for being one more to lend an observing and admiring voice to the under appreciated creatures of our world.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Katya – thank you for your support. I believe that there are many, many people who appreciate their local wildlife, and there are many voices raised against the hen harrier slaughter, for example. All is not lost, while there are people to protest and people who care.

  5. Dave

    It is surprising where Herons get to in London. Last year I took a photo of one on the mud banks at low tide next to Vauxhall Bridge. Hopefully a good indicator of the water quality of the Thames. Fascinating post as always.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Dave, yes, herons seem to be endlessly adaptable and opportunistic don’t they. Near the heronry last year there must have been thirty herons all sitting in a row, and some of them were starting to join in with the general chaos when the ducks were being fed. I do hope they don’t get too habituated – a bite from a Canada Goose is one thing, but a peck from a heron is something else!


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