Life in the old heron yet as courtship dance goes on

Damien Enright’s regular visitor to this column, ’his’ heron, returns... 

Life in the old heron yet as courtship dance goes on

My wife suggests that the bird is confused, he hasn’t twigged that nesting in 2017 is over for herons, and that he can’t go on carrying sticks to the heronry in the hope of picking up some young thing that hasn’t yet bred.

He thinks he can find romance again by carrying a stick around as if ready to start a nest (the male brings the material; the female does the construction, for Health and Safety reasons, I’d say). Older females will ignore him; the rearing season is past and they have no need for further male interference.

My readers have had updates on the bird, ‘our’ heron, ever since we rescued him from certain death in April 2011. We raised him as a free bird: he comes and goes at will. He has regular appearances in this column.

He surprised me yesterday when he landed on my car bonnet, 3m from my workroom, with a sizeable stick in his gob. (I use the Irish for beak, not the English for mouth). Does he think he’s going to go a-wooing again? Only a few days ago, perplexed by a repetition of the voracious feeding behaviour he displays when he has fledglings in the nest from March to May, I sent a report to BirdWatch Ireland entitled: “Second clutch behaviour of ‘our’ grey heron that may be of interest to some student of herons.”

After detailing his history, I wrote: “A male, he’s now six years old and has bred successfully from his third year. I’ve read in the available literature that it’s rare for herons to raise a second brood unless the first has failed. There was no sign of the first clutch failing. The nesting site was regularly visited.”

This year, as usual, he carried ‘courtship’ sticks in February. After finding a mate, he started demanding double food rations in April, and yet more in May, building up to 1.4kg. per day (and he would take more if given).

Soon, he was in ‘feeding frenzy’, almost hysterical for food, and looking ‘rough’. He’d gulp down everything, fish, chicken bones — when we had no fish, he’d swallow pig’s liver, chops, hearts, even sausages, before flying to the heronry 200m down the road and returning almost immediately.

The frenzies stopped in early June; the clutch had fledged and flown. We noticed him once again sometimes fiddling with sticks. We replenished our stock of frozen bait fish, blue whiting, each about 20cm long, and made up bags of six, weighing about 0.5kg. From early June to early July, approximately four fish daily, plus occasional scraps, satisfied him.

We then went abroad, and our neighbours found he soon required six fish daily. When we returned, July 24, he was becoming more demanding. His breast feathers were frequently stained as if he’d been feeding young or sitting on a nest. Even after downing nine fish, he would continue to beg and knock on the windows. As in May, he began taking 1.4kg per day. However, from August 1, he was, overnight, satisfied with half that amount.

My wife and I think the schedule was: Brood 1: nest January: eggs, mid-February: first egg hatches mid-March: brood fledges mid March to late May. Brood 2: same nest; eggs second week June: first hatching mid- July. Increasing rations required, with frenetic feeding until a few days ago when it suddenly stopped.

Can something have happened that radically reduced the brood, if there was one? Brian Burke, MSc, a scientist working with BirdWatch Ireland, kindly answered my report. He suggested the second attempt would not be with his first partner but with a bird which hadn’t previously bred. Also, that the regular supply of high-protein food, and the mild weather, perhaps enabled him to maintain good condition throughout raising the first brood, allowing him to make a second attempt although such attempts were more common at larger heronries.

Vis-a-vis, a reduced brood. In young birds, first nesting attempts regularly fail. It seems the rearing attempt may have collapsed entirely. Now, he’s once more carrying courting sticks...

I recall Christy Moore’s song about ‘St Brendan and the Albatross’. Brendan, age 70, returns from his voyaging to woo a Kerry woman; “The girls were flabbergasted at St Brendan’s neck/ To seek a wife so late in life and him a total wreck.”

Our man isn’t a wreck, although he’s lost the fine springtime feathers. However, he’s undeterred. This morning, I saw that the twig was still lying on the car windscreen. Minutes later, he swooped in, picked it up and winged mightily away toward the heronry, intent perhaps on another romance.

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