Country diary: a heron he would a-wooing go

A heron has perched on the same rock, mid-stream, near the bridge over the River Wear, on several occasions lately. Not fishing, just preening. The sexes are so similar that perhaps only the mind of a heron can distinguish them for certain, but my anthropocentric guess is that it’s a male, who wants to be seen.

Ardea cinerea are early breeders, often with eggs laid by mid-February. With courtship looming, this one seems intent on looking his best. He’s immaculately turned out, in several shades of grey, wings folded like a butler’s tailcoat around his lanky frame, topped off with a jet-black head crest and long wing and chest plumes. That pickaxe of a beak will get progressively yellower as the breeding season approaches.

Preening is slow and fastidious, rootling through chest feathers, running wing primaries through his bill, lifting alternate feet to scratch behind his head. Today he ends the performance by raising his crest, then letting loose a jarring, discordant squawk that will be the basis of his mating call.

This bird looks rakish and well fed, a lucky adult. More than 50% of young herons never make it beyond their first winter, to reach breeding condition in their second year. He takes to the air with ponderous wing strokes and disappears beyond the trees.

An hour later and a couple of miles downstream, we catch up with what I think is the same bird, in a little bay on a bend in the river, but he’s back in the air again, while we are some way off along the bankside footpath.

Dead and dying salmon, either suffering from fungal disease or exhausted from their arduous journey upriver from the sea, are sometimes washed into the shallows here. And it looks like he has found an easy meal, though one that is far too big to swallow whole. Barely submerged, gently rocking from side to side in the current, it has been ripped open, gutted, and we seem to have interrupted the bird while he was enjoying the roe.

Bright orange eggs, about the size of peas, lie scattered across a flat rock on the water’s edge: he had been dining on salmon caviar.