Heron’s courtship may necessitate increase in fish supply

It’s a freezing cold but starkly beautiful day here in the SouthWest, while it’s mucky, snowy, or slushy in the North-West, North and East; how fortunate we are. 

The sky is a scintillating blue, like the sea under it, and the morning sun yellows the tree trunks and gilds the ivy. There isn’t a blemish in the blue of the sky. The wild heron that we

rescued as a fledgling stands by the pond, shoulders hunched, embryonic aigrette stirring in the flutter of wind, his feathers brightening by the day.

Presently, he’s sprucing up for the breeding season and we know he’s courting because he fails to visit us for a day or two days at a time. The dowdy black feathers now are sharp and dense against the whites and lovat greys, the veil of black-spotted white feathers that fall like a bib from where the long grey neck joins the breast are getting longer. He has just eaten 12 oily finger-length sprats, one after the other. He will take the same amount when he returns for an early supper at five, as the light fails.

He catches them in mid air when they’re flicked from a tongs. Children — and adults — stand looking, rapt by his expertise. He never misses, if he’s bothered. After the ninth or 10th fish, he’s lackadaisical: He’ll let the sprat hit the ground before picking it up. Then, we know he’s satiated.

I wonder how many sprats will satisfy him in three months’ time, when there are chicks in the nest, and how many in four months’ time when there are fledglings, almost as big as himself. If there are four fledglings, and there well might be, plus the mother hen keeping guard against magpies, grey crows, and ravens, he might be in need of, say 10 dozen sprats a day. I think that, at that stage, we’ll simply fill a bowl every time he calls, and let him feed himself.

We’re fortunate, this year, in having enough fish in the freezer to see him through the rearing season. Since he first bred, six years ago, February, March, and April have been the
problem months. He has chicks in the nest, and comes to the yard as many as six times daily to fill his stomach to transport meals back to feed the squawking offspring.

One can hear them when one stands anywhere near the 25m-tall tree in the crown of which the nest sits, invulnerable, so well built and secured is it against the wildest storm. But this year, we wonder where the local colony of 10 or 12 nests will be sited, given that so many of the nesting trees, on which they traditionally sat, lie on the forest floor, flattened by Hurricane Ophelia or Storm Brian.

Perhaps the colonists will disperse to other trees in other woodland. Enough trees remain: The shores of this bay were planted by the human colonists, the earl and the big landowners, when planting trees, exotics and beech woods, was the fashion. Little did they think that not only herons would nest in them, but dazzling-white egrets, now common, having first nested here in 1997

Ravens may raid unguarded heron nests, but they do useful service on our familiar Canary Island of La Gomera, where they have proliferated since many previously domestic goats and sheep have been allowed go wild. It is a mountainous island and, since the
indigenous people have developed their rustic homes for holiday rentals, and built low-rise apartments as investments, they find themselves no longer having to clamber after their nimble livestock — or build stone pens to fence them and then daily cut and carry fodder to them—and have let them go wild.

Now, they have bred as wild herds, and live and die on the precipitous slopes 1,000 metres above the deep valleys. In dying unburied, they have fed the ravens and the ravens have proliferated and done nature a service by eliminating the remains in quick time and protecting the health of the living. Wild goats and ravens are now symbiotic. My son tells me that these nights, however, the goats are becoming a bit of a nuisance. In the hill
village where he’s living, he awakes to hear a Swiss neighbour playing piano concertos and a Gomero neighbour’s aviary of canaries sweetly singing. His sleep is sometimes challenged by the bleating of goats that come down from the hills at night to raid gardens. A young Gomero neighbour regularly rises from his bed and throws stones at them. But they’re stubborn. Fences may have to be erected but it’s not easy to keep out determined goats.



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