Once considered a rare vagrant to Britain, records of sightings of Purple Herons are increasing and occasional reports of breeding exist, although are difficult to substantiate.
Purple herons are similar in stature to the more commonly spotted grey heron, although obvious differences are immediately visible between the two species.
An elongated, slim heron species, the purple heron has a narrow body and streamlined long, thin neck. Despite their name, a purple heron’s plumage is more of a dark grey colour than any real bold mauves or violet hues, with an orange-chestnut head and neck, and a rich chestnut breast. A deep red shoulder patch is visible on its upper wings, and its dusky grey wing edges are tipped with black.
The purple heron’s crown is black, with a 15-cm (6-in) long plume on each side of the head. A thin black stripe runs down each side of the neck from the eye to the belly, which is striped with chestnut and black.
The yellow bill of a purple heron is slightly longer than the bill of other members of the heron family. Their legs and irises of adult birds are also yellowish-green, although legs appear to darken to an orange-red shade during the breeding season.
Female purple herons are smaller, lighter and paler in colour than males, with more of an olive-grey appearance to their back and wings, and buff-pinkish upper wings rather than the glossy red patch seen on males.
Juvenile purple herons are lighter in colour than adults, with mainly brown upperparts with buff edging visible on their feathers. Their underparts are buff, and their breasts are streaked with dark brown. Young purple herons have a black crown with a short crest and lack the facial stripes seen in adult birds.
Purple Heron wading through the reeds
Purple herons are smaller and slimmer than grey herons, but larger and longer and slimmer than bitterns. Males are significantly larger and heavier than females.
Purple Heron in search of food
Largely less vocal than the closely related grey heron, purple herons’ calls include a high-pitched ‘frank’ call, heard in flight and a louder ‘quark’ cry to signal alarm or distress.
Purple Heron calling out
Purple herons hunt prey by stalking prey or waiting in ambush for an opportunity to jab into the water or undergrowth for fish, small rodents, amphibians, small birds and invertebrates.
They are a crepuscular species, feeding mainly at dawn and dusk and resting during the day and night.
Studies of purple herons in France over a 20-year period indicates a shift from a mainly fish-based diet to one that now consists of more insects, such as beetles, dragonflies and bugs.
Young purple herons are fed regurgitated food by their parents, so their diet is ultimately the same as an adult’s and can include insects, fish, small birds, rodents, frogs and salamander.
Purple Heron fishing
Preferred habitats of purple herons include shallow swamps and freshwater marshes, with dense vegetation for foraging and camouflage.
Reedbeds and papyrus offer ideal spots for nesting, although foraging sites may be located a short distance away, including rice fields, ditches, riverbanks, forest clearings and cultivated plantations.
Purple herons are resident all year round in southern and eastern Asia and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although not present in Namibia.
Breeding occurs throughout central and southern Europe, with occasional reports of pairs further afield including the UK, and even as far as isolated sightings in Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil.
Resident populations of purple herons in Africa include up to 10,000 birds in both Tanzania and Madagascar, and 1,475 in Niger.
Within its European breeding range, numbers are concentrated around the Black Sea, with an estimated 9,000 to 14,000 pairs in this region during the breeding season. Other countries with notable breeding populations include Hungary, Spain, Romania and Turkey.
Purple Heron resting in a tree
Only around 20 to 30 sightings of purple herons are reported each year in the UK, and they are considered a rare vagrant species.
Breeding has been suggested but is hard to confirm. In North America, only the scarcest reports of visiting purple herons exist, with occasional mentions of individuals in the Caribbean islands of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.
Purple herons are extremely rare, sporadic and unpredictable visitors to in the UK, and as they are notoriously elusive birds, no site can guarantee even the slimmest chance of a sighting.
Close-up of a Purple Heron
The average expected lifespan for a purple heron is around 4 years, with the oldest known individual recorded claimed to be 23 years old.
Wetland birds of prey, including marsh harriers, are a common predator of purple heron nests, eggs and young.
Black crakes may also target purple herons’ eggs. In parts of their range, predatory mammals, such as clawless otters may also pose a threat to their nests and young.
Despite being only scarce and occasional visitors to Britain, purple herons are offered protection against being knowingly killed, injured or taken into captivity. Their additional status as Schedule 1 birds offers further protection for their eggs, nests and young against being destroyed or damaged.
Across their global range, purple herons are considered a species of least concern, and are widespread and common across sub-Saharan Africa. Central European populations have declined due to loss of wetland habitats, although recoveries and expansions have been noted in parts of Spain, France, the Netherlands and Germany.
Purple Heron in its natural habitat
Purple herons are colonial nesters with many pairs breeding in fairly close proximity to one another. Colonies of over 100 pairs are common, and sites with up to 1,000 nests have been observed.
Nests are built in reedbeds, concealed by rushes and dense vegetation, close to the edge of the water. Purple herons’ nests are bulky constructions, made from dead reeds and other plant matter.
In Europe and north Africa, the nesting season is usually between April and June, with the peak time for eggs to be laid being between late April and mid-May.
Within this part of their range, purple herons will typically only raise one brood a year, although in parts of the world where they are year-round residents, two broods are also relatively common.
Purple herons’ eggs are pale blue-green and measure 56 mm by 41 mm (2.2 in by 1.4 in). A typical clutch consists of between 2 and 8 eggs, which are incubated by both parents in turn for 25 to 30 days.
Although the species is mainly monogamous for the duration of a breeding season, male purple herons have been observed to raise broods with two females simultaneously.
Nest of a Purple Heron with three chicks and one egg
Although they may live and breed colonially, purple herons are territorial about their feeding sites and may display aggression when competing birds arrive to attempt to forage on their patch.
Purple herons are solitary nesters spending nights alone or in small groups in the branches of trees that are frequently located a short distance away from their breeding or foraging grounds.
Purple Heron in-flight
While many African and Asian purple heron populations are resident in their territories all year round, a substantial number arrive in Europe from African wintering grounds each spring to breed. The entire European population is migratory, with no individuals remaining beyond the end of the breeding season.
Family:Herons, storks and ibises
78cm to 90cm
120cm to 150cm
525g to 1.218kg
Great Blue Heron
Poised to strike, the Great Blue Heron stalks along American waterways in search of fish and other small animals. These widespread waterbirds are among the tallest of North America’s birds.
The South American counterpart of North America’s great blue heron, Cocoi herons are long-legged wading birds, found in a range of wetland landscapes across the continent. They are carnivorous, foraging for large fish and crustaceans in shallow water.
A small member of the heron family, barely larger than a pigeon, the little bittern is an extremely rare breeding visitor to Britain, with only limited reports of the species in the UK since the first official record in 1984.
Owners of some of the most specialised bills in the bird world, Spoonbills forage in small groups, methodically sweeping through the water in search of small aquatic creatures to snack on. Although rare, these unique birds are making a steady comeback in the United Kingdom.
Often thought of as a newcomer, the Little Egret is actually making a triumphant return to waterways around the UK.
A common but impressive waterbird, the Grey Heron can be seen along waterways throughout the United Kingdom. These tall birds use their remarkably long necks to spear their fish prey at range and with great speed.
The largest all-white egret in most parts of its range, these tall, stately waterbirds are widespread in temperate and tropical areas across the globe.
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.
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