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Tall Tales. Flora, Fauna of the Lake District.

Written by George Fisher

Image for article Tall Tales. Flora, Fauna of the Lake District.

The grey heron is surely one of the most easily recognisable of British birds, seen frequently in the Lake District; often standing hunched in the shallows of a lake, tarn, pond or stream, or on marshy ground, among the rocks at the sea-shore, or sometimes atop a tree. It is a large bird, with long greenish legs, a wingspan of some six feet and a long dagger-like yellowish bill. It has a long neck, which is sometimes fully extended, and sometimes hunched. The general colour of the plumage is grey, but the outer half of each of the very broad wings is black. The head is white, but with a black streak developing from the eye to a plume at the back of the head. There also tends to be a black patch at the shoulder.

The flight pattern is rather ponderous, with the neck drawn back and the legs trailing straight behind. When stalking the heron will stand motionless for some time, watching the immediate surroundings for any sign of movement which may signal the presence of potential prey, It walks very slowly, stepping lightly as it stalks, causing barely a ripple and on sighting prey it will lunge forwards, swallowing small fish head first and taking larger prey to the bank to be broken down. Prey is not restricted to fish but also includes frogs, newts, rats, mice and other small animals as and when the opportunity occurs. It builds a big nest in a tree or tall bush, using quite large sticks and brash, in which to lay its four or five eggs and bring up the young. The nests are often in groups, known of course as heronries and once established such nest sites are often used for many years.

While at the nest the birds are inclined to give short calls, little more than croaks, but when in flight are likely to give a much longer and rasping “carrrk” call. I once witnessed the entry of a heron into the air space of nesting peregrine falcons; the resulting confrontation was spectacular, to say the least, but the heron managed to escape and hopefully live out the rest of its lifespan of some twenty-five years. The somewhat ghostly sight of a nearby heron flying only a few feet above Loweswater in the early hours of the morning, reflected in the surface, accompanied by that unmistakeable call echoing through the mist, is one of those memories which never fades.