Tuesday 24 October 2023

Purple Patch 24th October 2023

A Purple Heron in the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire and only twenty five minutes from my home  was  irresistible. The heron's chosen location was Gloucester Wildlife Trust's Whelford Pools Nature Reserve which was well known to me, as for ten years my company was located in the nearby town of Fairford and I often passed the small nature reserve, tucked away from the road behind some trees, on my way home.

I was in no particular hurry as it was raining first thing in the morning so I left the house at around eight thirty as the rain cleared, leaving a legacy of grey clouds and puddle strewn country roads.Crossing the Cotswolds via familiar deserted rural lanes, on nearing Whelford the clouds had dispersed sufficiently to allow a weak sun to heighten the colours of the autumn trees.

The  reserve's car park is small, with room for less than ten cars and was already almost full on my arrival but I managed to secure the last space available and took a short muddy walk to a small hide overlooking the fringes of a lake. 

Entering the hide, it too looked full but again I managed to squeeze into the last available space on a bench and looked out onto a corner of cut reeds enclosed by a fringe of uncut reeds, concealing a large lake beyond.

The view from the hide at Whelford.The heron frequented the brown area of cut reeds, at the far end by the uncut green reeds

The Purple Heron was immediately visible, its back to me as it stood motionless, neck extended downwards towards the water's edge. It was a study in concentration and caution, absolutely motionless, its back blending almost perfectly with the dead stems of the cut reeds on which it stood. Its yellow eyes were fully focused on the water, the only movement evident, came as it adjusted its stance in anticipation of a strike.

The strike came as a shock, a second's transition from absolute stillness to violent action. The effort put into the projection of neck. head and bill  was so forceful the heron overbalanced, correcting itself upright with splayed wings.

It retreated from the water with a Perch held crossways in its mandibles and after a period of adjustment the unfortunate fish was swallowed head first.

I could but rejoice at this unforeseen opportunity to watch a bird that is,under normal circumstances so evasive, its secretive, reed dwelling existence rendering it almost impossible to view for a prolonged time yet here one was, in a relatively open situation and on view for long periods, unsuspecting of its hushed admirers crammed into a small hide.

Smaller than a Grey Heron, it looks far less robust almost emaciated, its  narrow head and yellow orange bill supported by an unfeasibly thin, noticeably kinked neck which it could stretch out to some considerable distance.Its legs and feet were sulphur yellow and the toes very long and thin. It would move with stealth, slowly and alternately extending each leg to take a long measured stride whilst at other times it would hold one foot in the air, suspended for seconds in ultra caution, before moving on. Sudden movement was an anathema unless to strike at a fish.

A young bird born this year, its upperbody plumage was reddish brown with a white chin and throat, its duller white neck and breast liberally lined with black. Its underbody was sandy brown.The flight feathers were black and its tail extremely short but one was drawn to its head  from which yellow expressionless eyes stared either side of a formidable bill of black, orange and yellow,

The heron, with great deliberation moved along the edge of the water from one side of the cut reed patch to the other. Halting at favoured points, it would stand and regard the water, poised to strike should any fish betray itself. I saw it catch at least three fish, all Perch and it also missed several others.

Purple Herons are not that unusual in Britain with up to twenty birds being recorded annually, mainly between April and October, although they are normally a bird of central and southern Europe where they are migratory, moving south to Africa in winter.

The individuals that reach us are often dispersing juveniles and currently there is another on Marazion Marsh in Cornwall.Occasionally juveniles have been found in my home county of Oxfordshire and in 2010 a pair even bred at Dungeness in Kent. I suppose with the warming of our climate there is a good chance this will be another southern European species that will colonise Britain as have Glossy Ibis, Great, Little and Cattle Egrets. 

For two fulfilling hours I watched the heron, almost constantly on view, until it stood at the furthest end of its secluded corner in the reeds, shook its feathers and flew up and over the reeds but not very far, athough rendering itself invisible in the process.

Cue a mass exodus from the hide. I stepped out into the warm noon sunshine of a late autumn day, the leaves now turning a traditional yellow in an embracing stillness. The melancholy of autumn but I left for home more than happy and content.

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