by Paul Cormacain
A HERON stood on a small island in a small lake. He did not see us approach, and as soon as we became aware of him we remained motionless and decided to watch for a time. So he carried on as usual.
The heron is one of our first birds to breed. Some pairs may start laying as early as February, which is sometimes the middle of winter. Others may not start laying until March, which is not exactly summer. This means, of course, that the eggs have been all laid and hatched, and the young have all left the nest.
So a single heron could be the ma, the da, or the youngster. The bird would not have to be concerned with feeding hungry young ones, and would only be concerned at feeding itself. So what we were looking at was a hungry heron.
Herons usually nest in groups in trees, heronries, and certainly these are the only position I have ever observed for herons' nests. They are common all over England and Wales. Likewise in Scotland and Ireland, but at times birds in these countries nest on cliff faces. This would be in areas of the west of the countries where there would not be as many trees about.
Where trees are even scarcer, the nests may be made in low bushes, even in deep heather. I would say that all local birds would not have this problem, and all local heronries would be built in trees. So this heron lived in a tree.
As we watched this bird seeking his dinner, we remembered all the books we had read about herons, and their peculiar method of catching dinner.
We could not be sure whether the bird was standing in the water or on the grass at the edge of the island. Nor did we know what sort of dinner may have been in the water.
All the time the heron had stood motionless, as is the norm, for the heron stands completely still and waits for dinner to approach. Then he strikes. His long bill swiftly reaches out and grasps a passing fish, for example. As we watched, this heron quickly reached down and pulled something from the water. We could see it was a fish, a small fish which was wriggling in vain.
The heron will eat any fish it can catch, and I suspect that in that size of lake the fish would only be small. It takes a larger amount of water for a fish to grow larger. Fish constitutes the main item in the heron diet, and in one survey it was found that 61 per cent of stomach contents was composed of fish. But the heron will eat much more. He likes frogs and frog spawn, and will tackle newts as well.
If a grasshopper comes within reach his survival rate is severely limited. Dragonflies are also at risk, and perhaps nearly any insect that comes within striking distance. If a young inexperienced bird comes along, a waterhen or a duck perhaps, it's chances of survival are virtually zero. Mice or rats that turn up are equally at risk, in fact, like most wildlife, the heron takes advantage of any situation that turns up.
We stayed close to the small lake for a further time, and the heron caught something else. This time we could just not be sure what the dinner consisted of, whether it was fish, bird, animal, or insect. But when the heron eventually flew off, we got the distinct feeling that it was not in the least hungry.
Saturdays in July - RSPB dragonfly watching at Portmore Lough, details 028 90491547
Friday 1st July to Wednesday 31st August - Castle Espie is hosting a Feathertastic Trail. a self guided trail for all the family, sounds fantastic! Contact Espie on 028 9187 4146 for details.
Sunday 3rd July - National Trust is organising a sea trip to watch birds and seals off County Down. Phone 028 4483 0282
Wednesday 6th July - What about a guided tour of the Cave Hill Country Park, at 1000, more from City Council on 028 9068 1246.
Sunday 3rd to Saturday 9th July - Colin Glen Trust Environment Week, even better Chart last year, which was great. Basically, it is an invitation to the whole community to come along and see, perhaps to participate. More from 028 9061 4115.
Monday 4th to Friday 22nd July - Explore rock pools, search for fossils, at Portrush Countryside Centre, Contact 028 7082 3600
Sunday 17th July - Ulster Wildlife trust is hosting a guided walk in Slievenacloy Nature Reserve with the emphasis on butterflies. Details from the Trust on 028 4483 0282.