Wednesday 2 May 2018

A Green Heron in Pembrokeshire 30th April 2018

News came through on Sunday 29th of April about a Green Heron being found in far distant Pembrokeshire in Wales, at a place called Llanmill. It was only the eighth to be found in Britain, so in twitcher parlance was a mega and judging by the photos on social media, like all its predecessors, it was showing off and very approachable.

Green Herons are normally inhabitants of North and Central America, ranging from southern Canada to Panama, with northern populations migrating south in autumn. It is around thirty eight centimetres/seventeen inches in size and is one of the few species to use a tool. They will use bread  crusts and insects as bait which they drop on the water's surface to attract fish. When a fish comes to the bait the heron seizes the fish.

I have already seen three Green Herons in Britain, the first at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey, also in Wales, way back in November 2005, the second on The Royal Military Canal at West Hythe, Kent in October 2008 and the most recent at The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, which remained from October to December 2010, so I was not too worried about this one.

However, as the time passed, and more superb photos were posted on the internet my resolve weakened and I gave my birding buddy Clackers a call on Sunday afternoon to enquire if he was up to coming to Pembrokeshire with me on Monday. It has been a while since we have been on a twitch together, for various domestic reasons, but to my surprise he was up for it provided Mrs C could come as well which, as far as I was concerned, was fine.

I decided that a late departure for Wales, just after the morning rush hour would be appropriate this time rather than rising in the wee hours. The Green Heron looked like it was going nowhere and I could check that morning on RBA (Rare Bird Alert) that the heron was still around, as surely someone would have reported it before we left Oxfordshire. If all went to plan and it was still there we could make a relatively leisurely and anxiety free drive to Pembrokeshire, safe in the knowledge that it had not flown off.

Of course no news arrived about the heron on Monday morning, so I  drove to Clacker's house resolving that if a report did confirm that the heron had gone we could always turn back, having hopefully not got too far on our journey.To my relief at just after nine the first report of the heron came through confirming it was still at Llanmill.

Having collected Mr and Mrs C from Witney we embarked on the three and a half hour journey to Llanmill. Oxfordshire was dull and grey as we left but the forecast for Wales was for sun all day and  heading west the clouds dispersed and we were soon driving in very pleasant sunshine. Once past Cardiff the traffic became noticeably lighter and in the bright sunshine even Port Talbot, officially the worst town in Britain for air pollution, managed to look slightly less depressing and unwelcoming than usual. Once past Swansea we were in rural Wales and the rapid onset of Spring was manifested in the wooded valleys and rounded hills, all now clothed in various shades of green.

En route through central Wales I asked Clackers to check RBA (Rare Bird Alert) for news about the heron and there was a further update. The Green Heron was still present but was proving very elusive by hiding in reeds.This put something of a damper on our high expectations, as for the previous two days it had been showing itself really well but now it was not being so co-operative. There was little we could do but hope it might change its ways by the time we got to Llanmill so we drove on, our mood a little more subdued than previously.

Finally we turned off the main road and took to some very narrow lanes leading us up, down and around the rolling countryside towards Llanmill. The lanes were sunken and high grassy banks rose well above the car as we descended into a timelessly beautiful river valley. Llanmill is no more than a hamlet with a scattering of cottages and some larger houses, most of which have been renovated to a high specification and look to be second and/or holiday homes. The whole area is very beautiful and rural Wales today, in the Spring sunshine, could not have been more beguiling.

The parking was very limited by the lane that we needed to walk along to where the Green Heron was, so as instructed on RBA we drove on uphill to the crematorium and parked here along with a host of other cars but most of these seemed to belong to people attending a cremation rather than to birders.

It was about a half mile walk back  downhill to the lane we had passed but it was not unpleasant as we sauntered down between the high steep banks. full of wild flowers that guarded the narrow road, admiring all the commoner wildflowers adding their colour to the grassy banks. Truly indigenous wild Bluebells mixed with yellow Primroses whilst pink Geranium Cranesbill and Red Campion and the white starry flowers of Greater Stitchwort were also much in evidence. We even found the tiny and delicate white flowers of Wild Strawberry. It was positively idyllic as the sun shone down on us and a joy to be alive at this, my favourite time of year.

We turned into the lane and an obviously hastily erected cardboard sign directed us to follow the lane until we came to the very last house. We crossed another stream and walked uphill on a rough track before descending to the last house. Walking around the end of the large and imposing house we came across a small group of birders standing on a grass terrace overlooking a stream and a small reed fringed pond. Whoever lived here was indeed fortunate as beyond the wild garden with its pond and gurgling stream running past mounds  of golden flowered Marsh Marigolds betwixt bank and stream, was a view into the distance of fields, hedges, trees and rolling hillside uninterrupted by any human habitation. It truly was an amazing and picturesque spot.

The pond was where the Green Heron was to be found but not at the moment, as the reeds on the far side of the pond were currently concealing the now secretive bird. A fellow birder told me it had not been seen for over thirty minutes and even when he had seen it the views were distant and obscured.

This was a little depressing to hear after our long drive but the reed bed was hardly extensive and after about ten minutes the heron could be seen, just about, as it hunted for newts and fish. The views were hardly satisfactory as only parts of the heron were visible at any one time rather than the whole bird. I first saw its rich chestnut brown neck, upper flanks and cream striped breast, then a minute later its greeny grey back and finally its head with staring yellow eyes and a formidably large, dagger shaped bill. It walked left and was hidden once more by the reeds, then it caught two  newts in quick succession, swallowed them whole and walked the other way, only to be hidden from view once more. We waited to see if it would ever come out of the reeds but it looked unlikely. It was very small and I marvelled at  how well it could conceal itself in the small clumps of reed blades rising out of the water. Time drifted by but I still felt some optimism about the heron eventually showing itself fully. From previous experiences I knew that small herons like this often move position periodically and this might prove our chance to see it well, and so it came to pass as the tiny heron emerged from cover and stood in front of the reeds.

Like all of its kind, its movements were eternally slow and deliberate. Nothing was done in haste and it remained immobile for long periods although its eyes were constantly moving and scanning the water for unwary prey. After some time just standing, it slowly made its way along the edge of the pond, on enormous yellow feet, towards a small tree hanging over the pond, which it then flew up into and scrambled about in the branches and twigs before endeavouring to perch at the edge of the tree so it could survey the water below.

It soon decided this was not to its liking and was unlikely to bring any success in capturing any of the fish or amphibians in the pond and scrambled back into the heart of the tree, before suddenly flying out from the tree and towards us, landing on a small isolated log in the pond, one end of which stood proud of the water and right in front of us,

Here, at last was our chance. And what a chance. The Green Heron was now fully out in the open and completely exposed but was totally focused on fishing and ignored us completely. Cameras went into overdrive as about fifteen birders took the opportunity to  record this extra special bird.

The log the heron had landed upon was hardly the best or most convenient perch from which to look for prey but the heron contorted itself with its huge yellow feet gripping the log tightly so it could look over the water to seek any unwary fish or newt. It sat there for quite a while virtually immobile but with its eyes, as ever, constantly scanning the water for any sign of movement below.

It noticed something moving in the water and extended its head and neck parallel with the pond's surface, its head and formidable bill pointed purposefully at whatever was  attracting its attention. It was like a coiled spring, its whole body tense and absolutely motionless as it prepared to strike.

When it did it was a flying lunge, a couple of metres out into the water but whatever it was trying to catch escaped and the heron, looking a little foolish, briefly floundered in the water before swimming back to its log and, after a good feather shaking to remove the water, resumed its hunched hunting posture.

It extended its head and neck several times over a period of some thirty minutes, looking each time as if it was about to strike but there was no successful outcome.

Then a very strange thing happened, for the heron slowly extended its neck upwards until it was pointing its head and bill, with neck now fully stretched, towards the heavens.Not only that but its body feathers were compressed and it stood with its legs fully extended making it look remarkably attenuated. I have only ever seen a Bittern do this when they are taken by surprise or are alarmed

The Green Heron looked  as if it was making itself as inconspicuous as possible, imitating by its attenuated appearance, the spikes and stems of the reeds that surrounded it in the pond. Possibly it did this because of its exposed position on the log which was well away from any cover, such as the reeds at the edge of the pond. I can only assume that it had noticed something in the sky above which alarmed it, maybe a passing raptor or possibly a much larger Grey Heron, which we had seen flying over earlier. Watching the Green Heron closely I could see its eyes looking upwards following whatever was passing above it but by the time I diverted my attention away from the Green Heron whatever it was that had troubled it had gone and the heron slowly relaxed and resumed its hunched stance on the log.

We carried on watching it as, every so often, it continued to get excited by a movement in the pond but each time it proved a false alarm and nothing came of it. Then without warning it flew closer to us, landing in a narrow band of reeds below the near bank of the pond, which from our position made it virtually invisible.

The show was over and according to others around us, who had become familiar with its behaviour over the past two days, it would be a couple of hours before it re-emerged. We waited some fifteen minutes, just enjoying the atmosphere of this lovely place and chatting to other birders around us.The heron was now partially visible again and caught a Great Crested Newt but decided it preferred to fly to the reeds on the far bank to consume it, and on landing in front of them purposefully and deliberately walked into them and was gone from view.

More than happy with what we had seen and experienced we took our leave and commenced a leisurely walk back to the car.

The house and gardens where we observed the Green Heron belong to one Simon Hart, Tory MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. I did not know at the time of our visit that the house owner was Mr Hart nor was I aware that he was, from 2003-2010, Chief Executive of The Countryside Alliance, supporters of fox hunting and other blood sports. He is still paid £30,000 per year by The Countryside Alliance for eight hours work a week. Nice work if you can get it! He also had put a bucket out for donations to Songbird Survival, another dubious organisation keen on killing raptors, disguised in the name of conservation. I felt honour bound not to put a penny in the bucket.

Whilst grateful to Mr Hart for his generosity in allowing us onto his property to see the heron and even providing free tea and coffee if you wanted it, I am glad I was unaware of his association with The Countryside Alliance at the time of my visit as I do not think I or my fellow birders would find much to agree on as he is very much pro fox hunting and badger culling and also a critic of the RSPCA.

Mr Hart wrote an account for RBA, of how he found the Green Heron whilst mowing the grass and in the process flushed the heron from the reeds on the edge of his pond and subsequently got two local birders to identify it. I had to chuckle when he went on in his account to recount how he saw the Green Heron catch and swallow several small Rudd from the pond. This, in the same week that a much larger fish, also called Rudd (Amber), instigated her own demise from the current Conservative Government.

You really could not make it up!

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