Friday, 11 August 2017

The American Night Heron re-visited 10th August 2017

A long arranged lunch date with my good friend Panos found me today at the appropriately named, for a birder anyway, gastro  pub, The Swan with Two Necks at Blackbrook in Staffordshire. Panos is both a Doctor and a Physiotherapist and we go back a long way, having originally met due to our respective involvements in the world of acupuncture.

After lunch Panos kindly offered to give me some acupuncture to treat my still slightly troublesome shoulder so we went back to his house and treatment room and after some acupuncture needling and good advice about exercises to strengthen my shoulder I felt much happier. So much so, I felt confident enough to cancel my doctors appointment  in Chipping Norton for the next day.

Panos lives but forty minutes from Shrewsbury which is in the neighbouring county of Shropshire so it seemed a good opportunity to renew my acquaintance with the long staying Night Heron frequenting The Dingle, a manicured floral extravaganza with a small lake at its heart and a well known tourist attraction, sandwiched between the town and the River Severn.

Looking down on The Dingle
Bidding farewell to Panos I was, forty minutes later, negotiating the tortuous roads in the heart of Shrewsbury, which like all similar towns is now made unbearable by too many cars and buses trying to negotiate roads that were never planned to cope with such volumes of traffic. After twists and turns, uphill and down, back tracking and stuck at interminable traffic lights I arrived at the very same open air car park as on my previous visit in May and duly paid my money for the maximum two hours stay. That would be more than adequate if the Night Heron was showing itself in the nearby Dingle.

I walked back up the hill and turned into The Quarry which is a large area of parkland by the River Severn and at the heart of which is situated The Dingle. This afternoon was very different to the previous early morning visit I had made in late May. A major event was taking place in The Quarry, a Flower Show to be precise, with large marquees and surrounding satellites  of stalls selling anything and everything associated with flowers. The park was heaving with people out enjoying the balmy air and warm sunshine. I made my way through the throng to The Dingle, passed through one of the entrance gates and wound my way down the path to the small lake and a low wooden walkway which crossed over its northern end.

The wooden walkway that the heron sometimes hid under
and from where I and many others watched it
The Night Heron was not immediately visible but walking around the circular path I located it stood in the shallow water beneath the low wooden walkway. I walked back and as I did the heron flew out from under the walkway and feet of the people standing just inches above it and settled  on some low branches of an ornamental shrub sweeping low over the water. 

It stood here for quite some time, occasionally tearing at the vegetation and looking like it swallowed some of the leaves which I was unaware Night Herons were liable to do. Many passersby were stopping on the walkway to admire the heron, as it was so close it was impossible not to notice it. Some were local people who came to see it every day, others were visitors, there were parents with small children who stopped to show their kids the strange bird and a couple of birders cum photographers such as myself. It became quite apparent, talking to the local people, that the heron's prolonged stay and confiding nature had made it quite a celebrity.

Young family feeding the ducks.The Night Heron is stood
on the green branch overhanging the water extreme right

This Night Heron is not from the sub species found in Europe but has been identified from its subtle plumage differences as an example of the sub species found in North America. The unanswered question is whether it has come from there unaided or has it escaped from a collection somewhere in Britain or Europe. There are no rings on its legs to suggest a captive origin although that is no guarantee of wildness, but its exceptional tameness and long tenure in The Dingle mitigate against its wild credentials. It is also strange that it spends such a lot of its time out in the open when this species normally secretes itself deep in the cover of vegetation and only comes out in the late evening to feed - hence the name Night Heron. However wild Night Herons can be very tame and perch in the open as I have found in parks in China and Taiwan and it did arrive in The Dingle at an appropriate time for a migrant. I guess we will never know the answer, but I doubt it will be accepted by those who adjudicate on such matters but then again there was always, for me, the dubious Chinese Pond Heron in Kent which was accepted as a wild bird!

I watched the Night Heron for about an hour during which time it interrupted the long spells of relative inactivity with some preening and showed much interest in fish which were coming to swallow pieces of bread being thrown onto the water by kids, for the ducks. The swirls of water caused by the fish as they seized the bread attracted the heron which anxiously flew from the foliage on one side of the walkway to the other, trying and failing to catch any of the fish as the water was too deep for it to land in. The fish were far too large for it anyway but it did not know this and on one occasion tried to seize a fish whilst in flight across the water.

It was beginning to moult and had already lost the two very long, thin white plumes of its breeding plumage that grow from the back of the crown and hang over its back. Occasionally it would fly right under our feet and into the shallow water below the wooden walkway, no doubt where it could stand and have a better chance of catching a fish. Many present thought it was eating the bread but  this was erroneous as it was the fish eating the bread that attracted it and I never saw it show the slightest inclination to eat any bread.

On one occasion it even started swimming from under the bridge but then flew up onto an overhanging branch. I reflected I had observed two things I never knew a Night Heron indulged in, eating leaves and swimming. So you see there is always something to learn if you have the patience to just stand and observe.

A small child dropped his sunglasses into the water and started screaming but it was so shallow by the bridge that his father managed to retrieve them with his bare arm whilst the heron, just metres away looked on impassively. There were other kids shouting and laughing on the bridge, throwing bread to the already overstuffed ducks, people with dogs and people with mobile phones taking pictures of the heron which was completely oblivious and unphased by all the attention it was getting. 

Small child and small heron!
Many people asked me what it was and if it was rare and seemed satisfied with the answers I gave. One small girl, bless her, thought it was a giant kingfisher as it stood quietly and motionless at the water's edge.I could see her point.

Whatever the origins of this particular Night Heron it was a great sight to see, quite an occasion in fact and it is, after all, a very beautiful bird and to all extents it was living a wild and independent existence and giving exceptional views for such a usually shy bird. So I felt no compunction not to make the most of the opportunity and share a pleasant hour in its company with so many others.


On 27th November 2017 the 'American' Night Heron was found to be very emaciated and was taken into care in an effort to revive it.

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