One morning last autumn one of our neighbours was amazed to find a heron stalking purposefully through his flowerbeds. It was the first heron he had seen in the garden and was almost certainly hunting for amphibians, frogs, toads and newts that would have been on the move in their own search for secure hibernation sites below stones, logs or in woodpiles. A heron’s main diet comprises fish and amphibians but they are opportunistic hunters and will snap up large insects, small birds such as ducklings and small mammals like mice and voles. At times they are tempted by bigger prey and have been recorded taking creatures up to the size of a moorhen or a young rabbit.
A heron regularly flies along our street, following the line of the valley and, each time I see it coming, I head for the windows overlooking our four ponds. Occasionally I am rewarded and it drops down to stand motionless for minutes (pictured) or slowly advance along the water’s edge. This usually happens in the warmer months for the heron presumably knows from experience that our ponds contain no fish and that little moves within them during the winter.
Many of the pond’s inhabitants are active mainly at night, notably the palmate newts of which there is probably a population in the hundreds. I only see them by torchlight and by day they are not obvious although may be to the heron’s much sharper eyes.
This month we have already had a heron on two afternoons but they are easily spooked into flight by the smallest movement behind a window. I believe that most visits happen soon after dawn when it can hunt undisturbed and when newts may still be active. In early summer dragonflies, their larval stage completed, are emerging from the water and are helpless, unable to fly until their wings have expanded and dried, a tasty snack for a heron.
The Wharfedale heron population is thought to be decreasing but there are still two active heronries of which the larger was reported to still have 30 nests from which 64 young were reared in 2014. Even so, I tend to assume that just one bird is involved in visiting our garden for I seldom see more than a single heron along the Wharfe where the bottom of Otley weir is a favourite spot.
by Denis O’Connor
Wharfedale Naturalists Society