Sunday, 21 May 2017

A Night and Day Heron 21st May 2017

I went to bed last night mulling over two birding options for today, Sunday. I could go and see a very confiding European Cuckoo on Thursley Common in Surrey or a similarly confiding Night Heron frequenting a park, called The Quarry, in the middle of Shrewsbury. I decided to sleep on it and make a decision first thing the next morning.

As is the custom lately my disrupted sleep pattern awoke me at just after 4am, in the still of an emergent grey morning, the lightening of the night sky clearly visible through the window. Shortly after, the delicate notes of a Robin's song signified that he too was awake and ready for another day. A Blackbird duetted with the Robin, the ornithological equivalent of late actor John le Mesurier, his richer, unhurried song complementing the Robin's whimsical trickle of notes. Five minutes later they were trumped by a Song Thrush, proclaiming for all to hear his resonating, rhythmic song of repetitive phrases, three sometimes four of the latter in a row, each phrase different until he returned to one he had already sung. What would the world be without birdsong? How can such small bodies generate such a volume of sound? We take it so much for granted as just another background noise but when there is silence in the winter months we suddenly notice the absence. Perhaps in towns and cities it is different but even there you can  hear Robins singing all year round under the false dawn of streetlights in the dead of night 

Finally the young Starlings awake. Just fledged in the last few days they have taken up residence, like a swarm of unruly neighbours in the tall holly hedge guarding one side of our drive. Their throaty, purring calls insistent and relentless, a constant stimulus for their parents to bring ever more food. Later, emboldened they will descend onto our lawn, one or two brown feathered juveniles closely following a parent like fractious demanding children, quivering their wings, yellow gapes wide open in anticipation of food but despite being the size of their parent they never seek food for themselves

All this from outside my bedroom window.

Sleep befuddled at such an early hour and still in a quandary where to go I lay for an hour in bed and a third tempting option did occur to me -stay in bed- but no, that would never do, so I eventually made the decision to go to Shrewsbury. It was not quite so far as Surrey and would only take me about ninety minutes. I could always go and see the Cuckoo later in the week as it would not be going anywhere soon whereas the Night Heron, being an off course migrant could depart any day and heaven forbid might even not be there today

The roads at six am on a Sunday morning were, as expected virtually devoid of traffic as I  crossed from Oxfordshire and drove through Warwickshire, heading for the Motorway junction near Coventry, and even the M6 around Birmingham was calm. So quiet was it that I could afford the luxury of avoiding the M6 Toll Road, and save myself a fiver by taking the normal M6, which on a weekday would have been jammed solid with traffic and not an option.

My luck ran out when I reached Shrewsbury where I was confronted by temporary road signs informing me that certain roads I needed to traverse to reach my destination were closed today and traffic would be disrupted due to a Civic Parade being held in the town this very morning.

My ultimate destination was an area of parkland by the River Severn and virtually in the town centre called The Quarry. I have never been to Shrewsbury before and the town turned out to be a  maze of narrow, often one way roads, if they were not closed, and confusing traffic flow systems, convoluting in and around the mixture of old and new buildings that comprise the surprisingly hilly town of Shrewsbury.

I drove past some huge white tents and marquees in what looked like a park on my left, the railings of which were hung with signs informing me that all this canvas belonged to The Chinese State Circus. Assuming this was The Quarry I carried on downhill to find an area of currently deserted open plan car parks some few hundred metres further. Deciding this would do and I could walk back and see if the parkland I had passed was really The Quarry, I put a pound coin into the ticket machine which told me that I had two hours parking and there was no alternative option as that was the maximum time allowed. I just hoped the heron was going to be co-operative and I was right about The Quarry.

I set off with camera and bins towards the huge tents and marquees and at the top of the hill found a sign amongst others pointing downhill to 'The Quarry'. This led me onto a wide tarmac track with the River Severn on my right and a large area of grass sloping upwards to my left. This had to be it and sure enough another sign confirmed this was The Quarry. I met another birder on a similar mission and together we walked a few hundred metres along the tarmac track until we came to a path running off at a right angle to our left with a sign pointing a hundred or so metres up the sloping grassland to The Dingle. As if to confirm this we could already see a bird photographer at the top of the slope, with a huge lens and bins who was standing by some railings which obviously enclosed  The Dingle.

The Dingle is a small, sunken area, landscaped and with a modest ornamental lake at the bottom which is surrounded and enclosed by many exotic shrubs and trees, only two of which I could name, these being Rhododendrons and Azaleas, both of which were in flower and creating a riot of bright colours. It all looked extremely lush and lovely and well tended

On initially joining the photographer we found the gates to The Dingle were firmly locked but he told us he had already seen the heron through the gates but it had flown out of sight. It was now eight am but there was no indication as to when The Dingle would be open to the public so we would just have to wait, hope and see if anyone arrived soon to unlock the gate. Ten minutes later a quad bike bearing a man in the obligatory high vis jacket rumbled up and he unlocked the gate and let us in. Refreshingly he was friendly and courteous and made a point of telling us where in his experience from previous days he thought the heron could best be found around the lake and wished us luck, telling us The Dingle would get very busy later as it was popular with the locals as a place to come and relax. 

Views of The Dingle
On entering The Dingle it was as if I had found a secret sunken garden, a haven of peace with numerous benches to sit upon, concealed by the sloping contours of The Quarry. The lake sides were completely overhung by the exotic shrubs and looked ideal habitat for a Night Heron to hide in. There was also a small island with a huge willow tree in the centre, a couple of small fountains in the lake and a circular path around the lake, that took no more than five or six minutes to walk round. The Dingle was that small.

The majority of my experiences with Night Herons in Britain are usually of seeing parts of one rather than the entire bird, as being crepuscular they prefer to roost in deep cover for the day and are usually so deep in the cover that all you can see are various parts of the bird's anatomy through a maze of branches and leaves.The attraction of this one in Shrewsbury was that it had apparently not read the script and would show itself regularly  in the open, perched on overhanging branches and foliage at the edge of the lake.

There were five or six of us birders wandering the circular path  but initially there was no sign of the heron. I walked round twice, checking everywhere I could but with no luck. On my third circuit another birder looking across the lake found the heron, standing out in the open on a flat horizontal branch of evergreen overhanging the water. It must have just emerged from cover as it certainly was not there earlier. It was very obvious and just stood, silent and immobile, a stocky, compact heron, appearing neckless with a large head and formidable black bill,  occasionally moving its head slowly one way or the other in a slow, stealthy, heron like manner.

My first view of the Night Heron
We walked around the circular path to get closer to it and by standing on a bench I could just see it over the tops of the shrubs no more than five metres away. It was plainly an adult with black on its head and upperparts, dove grey wings and with a white face and white underparts. Two exceptionally long, wire thin, white plumes extended from its nape over its back. Its eye was wine red and the short sturdy legs were corn yellow as were its feet. A very smart looking bird indeed.

Night Herons or to be precise Black crowned Night Herons are one of the most widespread of heron species, being found in Europe, Asia and Africa as well as North and South America. In Europe they are a summer migrant breeding south and east from central France.and wintering south of The Sahara in central and west Africa. Those individuals that occur in Britain are either overshooting Spring migrants or dispersing juvenile birds in Autumn and between ten to twenty a year are recorded.

I left the others on the bench looking at the heron and walked back round  to the other side of the lake as I wanted to try and get an overall image of the bird rather than just its head. Even from the other side of the lake it was hardly distant as the lake was so small and this is where I got lucky, as the heron decided to fly directly towards me, possibly disturbed by the close presence of the other birders. It arrived on my side of the lake and landed right out in the open on top of a dwarf weeping tree of some sort and very close to me.

I fired away with the camera but the heron soon dropped down nearer to the water and as a consequence was hidden from my view by the intervening vegetation. I walked gently back round to the other side of the lake, stood on another bench opposite and had it full and side on in my bins, as it stood looking down on the opaque water from another evergreen shrub, waiting for an unwary fish to swim close enough to be seized.

The others soon arrived and I relinquished my bench so they could take it in turn to get their photos and once they had finished I resumed my elevated position on the bench and watched it doing, it has to be said, very little apart from indulging in a short preen.

In such a situation of waiting we all got chatting to each other, asking where we had individually come from and making various other general enquiries as one does. The birder who had joined me initially on the path by The Severn turned out to be Philip Snow, a reasonably well known bird artist and a man of humour and dry wit.

Being early in the morning and especially on a Sunday The Dingle had hardly any other visitors whilst I and my fellow birders were there apart from a couple of dog walkers who asked what we were looking at and having informed them and showed them the heron, were suitably appreciative.

My time was running out as I needed to get back to the car before 10am when my ticket expired but that was fine as I had more than satisfied my desires and the heron by now had secreted itself deep in a bush, was virtually invisible and looked like it would remain there for some time. I said my goodbyes and walked up and out of The Dingle back across The Quarry, now becoming much busier and populated with a small car boot sale setting up, and dog walkers and cyclists becoming ever more prevalent.

It was a good time to go as hopefully I would avoid the traffic chaos of the Civic Parade which was due to commence imminently. I got in a bit of a tangle trying to get out of Shrewsbury due to the closed roads but pointing the car in what I thought was the approximate direction of home I left it to the Satnav to guide me out of Shrewsbury. I was home before noon.

I live in constant hope that a Night Heron will one day turn up in Oxfordshire! There has been one as close as Cheltenham! Maybe The Oxford Parks?

Subsequent to my visit this particular Night Heron has been re-identified as being of the race from North America Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli and not from Europe as first thought

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