Master of the Pond

196

There’s a ‘Private Fishing’ sign posted close to the pond’s edge, but the heron clearly thinks this place exists for its personal benefit. It stands stock-still, impassive in the middle of the pond. From a distance the big grey bird might be mistaken for an old wooden post, if it weren’t for the crest on its head and the white feathers of its under parts which ruffle in the breeze. On this cloudy October afternoon, when the waterlilies are long gone, the heron’s predominantly slate-coloured plumage merges with the shady murk of the pond water. But as I get closer, the shape of the bird is unmistakable. That long crooked neck, dagger-shaped bill and powerful, yet hunched, silhouette make it one of our most recognisable British birds.

The heron bides its time, seemingly oblivious to a noisy rabble of ducks on the other side of the pond, or a wheeling buzzard overhead. It sees me watching from the bank, but sensing that I’m not a threat, ignores me. It waits patiently, the inscrutable ruler of the pond.

The heron takes a step forward, leisurely but assured, working the pond. It scans the shallow water for a meal, ready to strike. The mallards, around a dozen in total, retreat, squawking and flapping, to the reeds. They are flustered, but not concerned enough to flee. A few months ago they might have feared for the safety of a duckling with this predator around, but the ducklings are fully grown now and big enough to fend for themselves.

The heron struts through the shallows, as tall as a small child, stirring up silt and sending ripples across the water. The bird’s focus is on fish, not fowl. The weather remains mild, with autumnal trees reflected on the surface, while dark shapes dart beneath. Yet in the chilly months to come, when fish escape to the more temperate depths of the pond, and when the surface may be packed with ice, birds should be on their guard. The heron is an expert opportunist and may turn on any small bird foolish enough to get too close. Frogs, voles, moles, worms and insects are all at risk. There have even been reports of the heron’s rat-catching skills, prising rodents from the reeds and swallowing them alive and kicking.

The heron is clearly at home here, although the pond is far from large. They are an adaptable lot, taking advantage of almost any watery location, and can be found from estuaries to canals, from salt marshes to rural ditches and village ponds like this one. After harvest, they may visit farmland to hunt for rodents in stubbly fields. Or a taste for goldfish will tempt them to tiny back garden ponds, where they stealthily fish at dawn or dusk.

Like this one, herons are usually solitary, but from February to April, they gather together to breed, creating a temporary colony of up to 40 pairs. Their nests are precarious, ramshackle affairs, surprising high up in the trees for such large birds. Elegant and confident while striding through the shallows, the heron has the look of an ungainly flier.

But I’m proved wrong. A tractor rumbles down the lane and the heron is suspicious. It launches into the air, with slow, dignified beats of powerful wings which must span nearly two metres. It tucks its neck in as it flies, and stretches those impossibly long legs straight out behind, stiff as bamboo canes. A little ungainly, perhaps, compared to the aeronautics of the buzzard above, and far from beautiful, but powerful, controlled. Steady wing-beats carry the heron to a nearby oak, where it lands solidly on a broken branch and hops to the very end. It shakes its head, shakes its tail feathers, sticks out its beak and tests the air. Then it settles patiently and waits.