Despite their large frame, these greyish-white birds are elegant and graceful, often found statuesque beside ponds.
The grey heron is very big and strongly built. Its plumage is mostly medium grey above and greyish-white below. The adult’s head, neck and upperparts are mostly whitish, except for black feathering on the neck and head. This black marking starts at the bill, accentuating the yellow eyes, and end at the back of the head in a black, trailing tuft of feathers. The forehead is white. Upperwings are bicoloured, grey with black leading edge, and two paler patches at the carpals. The grey heron has a large, dagger-like bill that is greyish-yellow, turning more orangey in the breeding season. Its legs are long and yellowish green or grey. The juvenile is similar to the adult but underparts are more grubby and streaked, while the black and white head markings are less distinct.
Grey Heron Flying
The grey heron’s call is a loud and harsh ‘frank’. Young birds at nest give a pig-like squeal.
Grey Heron close up
Grey herons eat fish, frogs and other aquatic animals. They are capable of standing motionless for hours waiting for fish to approach. They will also stalk prey sometimes, using a slow, deliberate pace followed by a lightning strike of the bill. This rapid striking ability is facilitated by an elongated sixth vertebra which allows the bird to further extend its neck.
Grey Heron catching fish
The grey heron’s habitat is wetlands and coastal areas. They can be found near any type of water, such as ponds, lakes, rivers and estuaries. They can be seen all year round in Britain. The RSPB reserve Northward Hill in Kent is a good place to see grey herons as it is home to 150 nests.
Grey herons will often spread their wings in a sunbathing posture so that the sun warms the greatest possible surface area of their body. A similar pose is adopted for sheltering small nestlings. They are also famous for standing, statuesque, on one leg while waiting for prey to pass by. In flight, grey herons look huge with long, broad and rounded wings. Their head and neck are kinked and held in, tucked towards the body. Legs are held outstretched with toes held together. Wingbeats are irregular, slow and leisurely.
Grey Heron flying over water
The grey heron’s breeding season is protracted, with eggs first being laid in mid-February and the last young fledging in early September. The species nests colonially in ‘heronries’, with their tangled stick constructions built in trees. Nest sites are traditional and will be used repeatedly. During courtship, the male will call from his chosen nesting site to attract a female. When she arrives the pair will participate in a stretching ceremony. Once the pair has been settled, the birds will preen each other’s plumage. The male might also offer the female a stick, which she adds to the nest. The construction of a nest is usually done by the female, with the male providing the material. Displays throughout the breeding cycle maintain the bond between the breeding pair. The females will lay a clutch of 4-5 pale blue eggs, which she will incubate for 25-26 days. The young are fledged for up to 55 days. Birds reach sexual maturity between 2-3 years old.
Grey Heron nest with eggs
Family of Grey Herons - adults and juveniles
Grey herons typically live for 5 years.
In Britain, grey herons are resident, though their number increase in winter with birds migrating from Europe.
The grey heron has an estimated UK breeding population of 13,000 nest sites. The wintering population is thought to be around 63,000 birds. The species has a Green UK conservation status.
Originating in Africa, the western Mediterranean and sub-tropical Asia, the cattle egret has expanded naturally over the last hundred years to South America in the late 1800’s and North America as recently as the early 1950’s. Australia recorded its first migrants in 1940 whilst New Zealand’s population of egrets was established as late as 1960.