Saturday, 18 March 2017

Old Frank 17th March 2017

A morning of sunshine was made less enjoyable by a strong, bitingly cold westerly wind as I commenced walking with Dai up the Causeway of Farmoor Reservoir. A Little Egret stood close to us by the water's edge, its all white body dazzling in the morning sun and now showing the delicate, long aigrettes on its lower back that only appear during the breeding season and from whence its name comes. 

At the furthest end of the Causeway it was calmer, more sheltered from the wind and a flock of some fifty Sand Martins, newly arrived, hunted insects in a twisting, roller coaster flight  over the water but soon moved on, flying indomitably into the wind.

Dai and myself parted company and I made for the Hide at Pinkhill which would afford shelter from the cold wind. Ensconced in the Hide on my own, I relaxed and looked out on the familiar scene of Pinkhill Reserve with its sedge and reed periphery that encompasses a small expanse of clear water in its centre.

Reed Buntings, Great and Blue Tits were busy below the feeders that are situated just by the Hide, picking up fallen seed on the wet margins. Four Gadwall were pecking at a large patch of weed out on the water. Three males and a female, two of the males trying it on with the already paired female whose partner fended off the amorous rivals with the occasional lunge, voicing its objection with a ridiculous duck decoy call that substitutes, in a Gadwall's world, for the traditional quack. The drakes in their breeding plumage and when seen from a distance look drab and it is only on closer examination of their plumage that the subtle beauty and complicated vermiculations and matching of colours and patterns becomes apparent. The female is very much like a female Mallard but has an orange lower mandible and a grizzled, less strongly patterned head, similar to the drake

Male Reed Bunting

Drake Gadwall

Gadwall pair
Two other ducks near to them, dull brown and unremarkable had me looking closer, only to find they were two female Wigeon which are unusual here. Tiring of the disturbance from the ardent Gadwalls they swam languidly away before finding some quieter water where they put their bills into their scapulars and went to sleep.

Female Eurasian Wigeon

It was going to be a quiet day on Pinkhill. There was no sign of any of the Water Rails which have been such a feature here for the last few weeks but are now much more circumspect about coming out into the open due to the recent conservation work having removed a large proportion of the encroaching sedge that they loved to hide in.

Why is this blog entitled Old Frank? Well that is an old country name for the Grey Heron and is onomatopieoc in that 'frank' sounds a bit like one of the heron's commoner vocalisations. Most of us are familiar with the Grey Heron as they are not inconspicuous and come into contact with us in varied situations be it in  parks, on rocky seashores, raiding garden goldfish ponds, roosting like grey statues in grass fields or rising unexpectedly from lakesides or ditches in which they have been hunting. They nest colonially in trees and can be very obvious as the nest is built and eggs are laid well before the leaves have come out on the trees.There is a nesting colony on the main island at Dix Pit near Stanton Harcourt, which is not too far from Pinkhill and probably that is where the heron that regularly visits Pinkhill comes from and of which I am going to relate an encounter.

Grey Heron

Looking idly at the dead reeds on the far bank, illuminated by the sun and reflecting golden on the water, my eyes focused on a Grey Heron that stalked into view, up to its belly in the water, wading slowly but with purpose before coming to a halt opposite the Hide. It stood absolutely still, could it see me or was it looking for its prey? I dared not move and for a minute or two it was in the balance but then the heron allayed my concern by craning a long sinuous neck and pointing its bill at the water. It was clearly intent on fishing, a picture of concentration and focus, still as a statue with its long neck and narrow head projecting its formidable bill towards the water's surface. 

They are large birds, almost the size of a Golden Eagle and  fly slowly, in almost stately fashion, on broad, bowed and rounded grey wings, contrasting with their otherwise angular and thin body, all neck and legs. The neck, sunk into the shoulders in repose uncoils like a snake and at its fullest extent can extend the head and bill a considerable way out over the water in readiness to make a lightening stab at any unfortunate fish that should swim too near.

The heron was not having much success as a series of unsuccessful lunges, where its entire head was submerged before being retracted and shook free of water, evidenced, but its persistence was eventually rewarded when, with another unleashing of neck and bill it hit the water with a splash and its head re-emerged with a fish in its bill. The unfortunate fish was very unlucky in that it had almost evaded capture as the heron had only just seized it by the tail but there was no escape from the mandibles grip and there would be little doubt about the inevitable outcome.

The fish was a small Perch, its red fins, olive body with darker bands, distinctive and clearly visible in the sunlight as it hung from the heron's bill and no amount of writhing and twisting was going to save it. The heron stood for a while, as if contemplating how to get the fish into its throat without dropping it back into the water. It moved a few tentative steps in the water towards the sedge and reeds, as herons will often take a fish such as this to dry land so it cannot escape and they can deal with it more easily. But this was not an option here as there was no suitable dry land, just water, sedge and reeds.

It stood for a little time more, looking slightly ridiculous with the fish still hanging from its bill, a baselisk eye in its narrow head, pitiless and devoid of  expression, staring bright yellow in the sun before suddenly, with a dexterity that belied its size, released the fish but before it hit the water caught it again sideways and not without some difficulty swallowed the fish whole, moving the fish down its throat and neck with a series of jerking gulps.

The passage of the fish down its neck was clearly evidenced as a slowly descending bulge before it was gone. The heron stood motionless in the water for a minute, no doubt savouring the fish and then resumed fishing, its hunger still not abated despite the size of the fish it had swallowed.

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