The Heron – A superintelligent messenger

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Once upon a time when I was younger, I was walking near Force Jump Waterfall in the Kentmere Valley over in the eastern Lake District. A grey heron glided into a marshy field and began to look for frogs. It was the first time I had been so close to this bird. Then it died. It just fell down in a collapsed heap. Obviously, I was dismayed – hand to mouth. It raises questions about the deaths of large birds. Not many people ever see a large bird die a natural death. Maybe a ghillie in the Scottish Highlands might see a naturally dead eagle once in a lifetime, or a walker might find a dead Great White Egret in the Somerset Marshes, but to be there when one dies on the spot – that is a very rare event.

This eerie occurrence gave me the impetus to study the heron in life and in myth. Here are some things I’ve learned about this graceful and fascinating bird with a wingspan of 6.5 feet, only a few inches less than a Golden Eagle.

Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) are in the family Ardeidae which includes egrets and bitterns.  ‘Ardea’ in Latin means ‘heron’ and ‘cinerea’ means ‘resembling ashes’. They eat fish, frogs, rats and all sorts of other food. They ‘operate’ on the seashore as well an inland. They sit in the tops of trees, stalking through marshes, often standing and staring for many minutes before striking their prey.

They have invaded urban civilisation, flying over the rooftops of housing estates in Worcester Park, London for example, or sitting on the roof of a caravan at Chichester Harbour. They are becoming like foxes in their integration with human society.

Watts, George Frederic; The Wounded Heron; Watts Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-wounded-heron-13235

Over the past 4,000 years, herons have been hunted by humans for food, feathers and sadly, also for sport. The painting above, The Wounded Heron by George Frederic Watts, 1837 (Watts Gallery) is in the public domain.

In Combe Valley, East Sussex, where I do much of my wildlife photography, there are many herons. It is a rare day, rain or shine, when you don’t see one. In our winter-flooded valley you can see six at once all patrolling the pools and lake margins. So what are the legends behind the reality? Are there any herons in literature or Greek myths for example? Well, certainly there is one in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – it is called a ‘handsaw’! Shakespeare causes Hamlet to say in line 1460:

‘I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.’

And yes, there on page 158 of the Penguin edition of the Iliad, the goddess Pallas Athene (Roman equivalent = Minerva) sends a heron to guide the Greeks on the right path at night – Odysseus and his men could not see the heron but heard its cry in the dark. Then Odysseus praised Athene for saving him for her ‘special love’. Because Athena is the goddess of wisdom then the heron became to be known as a very wise messenger – a superintelligence.  So next time you think you are watching a heron, remember that it may also be watching you, and perhaps reading your thoughts.

Those of you who love Dartmoor will be pleased to see this internet page dedicated to the Dartmoor heronry: http://www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk/heron_moor.htm

A heronry is a colony of perches and nests – we have one in the tall trees near the end of the old Bexhill to Crowhurst railway viaduct site not far from Three Bridges and the 1066 Trail…here:

The Grey Heron lays a clutch of 4 to 5 eggs in one brood per year between January and May. Obviously because our valley floods in winter, this site is ideal for them being right at the side of the greatest flood section of the Combe Haven river – ready for plenty of common and marsh frogs in spring. Herons use the bridge handrails and perches to stare down into the Combe Haven in the early morning.

In Japan, the heron is thought of as representing calmness, determination and above all – patience. It is a solitary bird, in the sense that it does not regularly flock-feed like an ibis or avocet, but slowly stalks – attracting other hungry herons who may join it at random. Juveniles have spotted necks and no crest feathers, and their heads are pale grey rather than the black of the adult bird. Their beaks are black but turn to orange daggers as they grow.

Herons are masters of aerial flight, retracting their necks and hunching up in flight but using their huge wings to brake when landing in the marshes. When the heron looks down into a pool it must be able to see and therefore recognise itself. I have never seen a heron try to eat its own reflection. Its cry – for us and Odysseus too, is said to sound like ‘fraink’ followed by a rattle and a croak.

In China, the heron is seen as a good luck wish – ‘May your Path be Always Upward’ and white herons helped souls to get to heaven. In Egypt, the heron becomes the world creator – the Bennu Bird, Lord of the Jubilees, linked by rebirth to the Phoenix legends of Herodotus.

So we should be pleased and proud to live near so many herons and I am sure you all get great satisfaction from the peaceful observation of this superintelligent messenger as it hunts the doomed frogs of Combe Valley.

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Red Kite in Sight – Sheer Delight

By David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

If you love Wales and are interested in poetry, you may have heard of the early Welsh poet Dafydd-ap-Gwilym. He flourished from around 1320 to 1370 AD. He was born at Brogynin and died probably from the Black Death.

He is said to be buried in Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales although in the 1600s, another place 20 miles away, tried to claim his body.

Many years ago, my wife and I set out to find Strata Florida Abbey and see his grave, as his poetry was so beautiful – and also fun – because much of it was about chasing girls. We drove up from Bexhill towards Shrewsbury and then travelled into Wales on narrow winding roads – across mid-Wales, and as we did so we saw our very first Red Kite. These lovely birds nearly became extinct. They were hunted to death because they were scavengers. A small set of breeding pairs remained in this remote part of Wales. Then they were introduced into other parts of Britain – for example, the Grizedale Forest.

Now you can see Red Kites (Milvus milvus) in Combe Valley. The last sighting was 6 June 2019, so I am told by someone who lives near the Valley. I have seen three flying in circles above Three Bridges on the 1066 Trail a few months ago (2020). The RSPB state that there are so many that they cannot be counted in population surveys. The UK is the only country where the population is increasing. In some countries they have been reduced by 50% or more.

However, If you travel up the M40 to Oxford Services you will see them on many parts of the route in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire and when you get to the service area to park they will probably be scavenging in the bins.

It has to be said that the fact that we have buzzards, kestrels, marsh harriers, hobbies, sparrowhawks and hunting owls as well as Red Kites in the Valley is a great sign that these animals at the top of the food chain can all find enough to eat.

So what do they eat? The answer is just about anything edible: mice, voles, shrews, rabbits, weasels, mink, young hares, fox and badger carcasses, earthworms and your sandwiches! So please try to find out when watching them, what sorts of foodstuffs they have in their beaks. We don’t often see any voles or shrews when walking. There is a population of weasels in Fore Wood, Crowhurst but they have not yet spread to the Valley.

Red Kites bond for life and start breeding at around two years old or slightly younger. They make their nests in the forks of big trees and lay between one and three eggs. So please also look out for possible breeding nests – or let us know if you think they come into the Valley from elsewhere.

Red Kites are very capable of aerobatics. They are lighter and more manouevrable than a harrier. The RSPB have reported frequent groups of ten hunting and up to 40 feeding naturally. On some Welsh farms, they feed the birds each day and hundreds can be seen circling and landing.

It is an exciting time in Combe Valley, with all sorts of new wildlife discoveries. Pete Hunnisett and Combe Valley Nature colleagues are doing an outstanding job of tracking down a wide variety of plants and insects and I am doing my best, too. The results we find show that the Valley is pretty healthy – but there is some fly tipping and the Combe Haven river is in a poor state in parts being blocked by fallen trees and rubbish. It could be a lot healthier and the better it is as a river so the more wildlife it can support and then hopefully more Red Kites and other creatures will be able to feed successfully.

The 25,000 breeding pairs to be seen in Europe at present represents 95% of the total world population. If we could start to see breeding pairs in our Valley, we’d be delighted but maybe the other raptors would not be!

I watched a pair of wheeling crows attacking a buzzard over the ‘Tip’ area last Thursday. The crows won – so too much competition is not good when food is scarce. Please keep a sharp eye out for these lovely Red Kites and drop me a line if you see one – photos? Even better!

One of Dafydd’s poems is about the wind – but it could equally be about the Red Kite – here’s the last verse of the Poem ‘Wind’:

Go up high, see the one who’s white,
Go down below, sky’s favorite.
Go to Morfudd Llwyd the fair,
Come back safe, wealth of the air.

kind regards

David

Keeping track of local raptor sightings in Combe Valley

Last sighting 6 June 2019

Previous photos – long range telephoto – 22 May 2018

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF