Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Grey Heron

click photo to enlarge
The poor old grey heron (Ardea cinerea) has long been the object of man's desire and abuse. The lake dwellers of Gastonbury hunted them for food 2,000 years ago with slings. Medieval man did the same but with longbow, cross-bow, nets and traps, and no royal banquet was complete without several gracing the table. Such was the demand for the bird that in the time of Edward I (1239-1307) a heron, at 18 pence, cost more than any other wildfowl. John Swan in Speculum Mundi (1635) described "the heron or hernshaw" as great sport for the falconer though he did note that it could rise above the chasing bird and "with his dung he defileth the hawk, rotting and putrifying his feathers." In the nineteenth century the fashion for hats with feathers led to a desire for the long plumes that hang from its head, and many wildfowlers turned their punt guns on the bird. In the twentieth century the legal protection the heron received was often breached by irate fishermen who resented its competition for the content of their well-stocked fishing lakes. And, even today, when most people welcome the sight of this big, strikingly marked bird, there are those who see it principally as a thief that steals their carp from their garden ponds.

Today, however, the grey heron is doing well. Its population in the UK has probably doubled in the past 50 or 60 years. In 2003 the RSPB counted 10,320 nests in 782 heronries, so the actual population of birds must be well over double the number of nests (including non-breeding birds and missed sites). It is still mainly a bird of the countryside. However, significant numbers have always ventured into built-up areas to breed and feed. A notable heronry can be seen on an island in the lake at Stanley Park, Blackpool, surrounded by holiday-makers in rowing and motor boats, and the noise of a nearby road.

On a recent walk I came across this bird at Nelson Dock, a small piece of water adjoining the Thames and surrounded by a Hilton hotel and riverside flats, in Rotherhithe, London. The landscape architect had placed a stylized heron in the water to add interest to the scene, and it provided the perfect place for this passer-by, though a perch probably wasn't the use the sculptor had in mind. Incidentally, what is it about bird sculptures that lead birds to sit on them, and me to photograph them doing so? And why is the heron just about the only bird that I photograph? See here and here.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 150mm (300mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/250
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On