If the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus)has become the most iconic bird of the Norfolk Broads, it is probably because it has usurped the grey heron (Ardea cinerea). The general public always tend to romanticise raptors, which I guess is understandable. Those large carnivorous killing machines, the hawks, harriers and eagles, stir something in the human psyche. They are associated with wild places and wild ways, their predations not only expected but forgiven. The grey heron, however is viewed as a riverbank angler, standing gently in the shadows watching for its fish. Like an over-sized kingfisher. All of which allows the grey heron to get away with murder. Literally. Those of us who see them often will know their proclivity for mischief.
The grey heron is also known locally in Anglia as the ‘harnser’ or anthropomorphically referred to as ‘Old Frank’. Over the years here in East Anglia I have seen Old Frank in all his guises and they aren’t always gentlemanly. Fish are high on the herons menu but they are omnivorous. Beetles, worms, moles, voles, mice, rabbit kits, rats, frogs, eels and grass snakes. The harnser will take the eggs of ground nesting birds and my (poor) pictures here show Old Frank raiding a pheasants nest and taking a flightless poult. This encounter fascinated me. Not because the heron took the poult but because the hen pheasant put up a hell of a challenge, trying to rescue her youngster. The heron, however, was too powerful to resist and stole away with the chick.
The cover picture here shows a heron I saw on a water meadow at twilight. It’s wing was broken. I strongly suspect that it either hit a nearby power line or had attempted to raid eggs in a swan nest and had been attacked. If the latter, then it deserved its fate. I watched a fox prowling nearby but couldn’t intervene as I was on a public footpath. The herons demeanour, given its incapacity, was serene; resigned. I left the scene but returned the next morning to see the birds ragged body lying in the damp grass of the meadow. Old Charlie had taken advantage, something he would be reluctant to do if the harnser was in full health. The herons size matches that of a golden eagle. It is a formidable predator with superb sight, a dagger-like beak and the lightning strike of a snake.
It is a privilege to watch them hunt and to soar above the marshes and meadows here; I know they predate far more wildlife than the marsh harrier.
©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2015
Walking along the banks of the only man-made canal in Norfolk, the redundant Dilham Canal, resembled a walk through a petrified forest. Whatever calamity had befallen the trees here was beyond my limited arboreal knowledge. Dutch Elm disease? The legions of half-trees, many now devoid of bark and ravaged by woodpecker drillings looked as though a great godly scythe had been played across the dead timbers. Among a stand of these grey ghosts a single crow perched, watching my passing.
High overhead a pair of buzzards wheeled against the blue sky, mere dots courting atop the spring thermals. A ‘cronk’ turned my head and I followed the drift of huge spread wings as ‘Ole Frank’ soared down among the marsh grasses. A pterodactyl in a prehistoric landscape of bogland, dyke and grazing marsh. Britain’s largest avian predator, the heron, thrives on the Anglian marshes with their rich supply of frogs, grass snakes, voles and small fish.
The heron fascinates me and I have witnessed many interesting incidents featuring the harnser, as it’s known locally. I once photographed a battle between a hen pheasant and a heron as the stabbing sword of a beak picked off a brood of pheasant poults and gulped them down like a snake eating mice. The hen game-bird fought majestically to protect her chicks and even when the heron snatched up the last and took flight, she followed the giant harrowing it until it was out of sight. Ironically, I watched the same heron fall foul of a fox attack later year,in the winter, which left it with a broken wing. Circumstances wouldn’t let me intervene and I left it at dusk, crippled and alive across the river, lying in a meadow. When I returned out of curiosity next morning, the bird had been torn to pieces. Such is the power of natures karma, though I suspect it was the fox, not the hen pheasant, that finished it.
I stopped on the Tonnage Bridge, where the old wherries were weighed after coming down the six locks (long since abandoned, I and my family attempted to get canoes up the navigation ten years ago and only got has far as the first lock). Taking lunch I looked over the bridge parapet to see a long-tailed tit staring back at me just two feet away on a willow frond. A beautiful, minuscule bird and quite the opposite of the heron. Supping at my hot soup I glimpsed movement back out on the marsh I had just crossed. I put down my flask hastily and picked up my camera. Though distant, I delighted at watching the Lord of the Fen glide across the reeds and sedges, hunting for voles and snakes. That distinctive mustard face and yellow legs distinguishing Marsh Harrier from Common Buzzard. I wished I wasn’t so close to the cottages that border the bridge for I would have called it closer with my predator squeaker, for better images. Nonetheless, it was pleasing to see a harrier this far North in the county.
As I turned for home along the banks of the canal, a pre-Victorian enterprise channeled from the head of the River Ant, I tried to visualise the wherries carrying their goods through these meadows and fens but I struggled. The waterway is so narrow and clogged with weed or overhung with trees that it has lost it’s glory completely. Or has it? A nearby ‘plop’ in the water spoke loudly of water vole and a flash of azure feather along the stream reminded me that I photographed my first kingfisher along this canal. Perhaps now, created by man but donated to wildlife, it is at it’s grandest?
©Ian Barnett. Wildscribbler. March 2015