Eye to eye with a heron

Grey heron - Luke Massey/2020VISION

Communications Officer, Rachel Shaw, finds that even familiar paths from home can deliver memorable moments in nature

I don’t have to walk far from my home before I come across water. Straight lines carved through the land. Some are ancient like the Fossdyke which was built by the Romans and is possibly the oldest the canal in England. Others are newer, built to catch water from the land and drain it away. Known by the un-romantic name, catchwater drains, they are straight and steep banked. They aren’t places that I would naturally seek out but over the past year, they have become familiar.

It can be hard to feel enthusiastic about the winter trudge through the mud on the bank tops of these drains. The cygnets have grown, the swallows have left. Even the moorhens are determined to stay hidden. They disappear into the reeds with their tails flicking. But these waterways still have the ability to stop me in my tracks.

Walking along the bank top one cold afternoon, I glanced down. Beneath me, a metre or two away at the base of the grassy bank, was a grey heron. I hadn’t noticed him until I’d almost walked past. He stood perfectly still, like a plastic decoy by a pond. I froze too, determined that I wasn’t going to be the first to move.

Time stood still as we both stood still. In this moment of stillness, all I was thinking about was the heron and if he would move first. I looked at him, he looked at me. We both waited. Then, the heron lifted one foot, stretched out his toes and took a step forward.

Time stood still as we both stood still.
Grey heron in reeds

Grey heron - David Tipling/2020VISION

Each step was slow, thoughtful, deliberate. He walked a few metres and silently stepped through the reeds to the edge of the water. He stopped and stared intently into the water. His beak pointing like a dagger ready to strike any passing prey. I crept away. Feeling I’d won the staring match. He had been the first to move and I hadn’t disturbed him or caused him to fly away.

I often see herons but this encounter made me wonder how many I had walked passed without noticing them? They are large birds, almost a metre tall, but their stillness is like an invisibility cloak. They also stand in the fields next to the drains. Shoulders hunched and necks drawn down; they become part of the landscape.

My walks will be local for sometime yet. Whilst I’m looking forward to spring and the new sightings that it will bring, there will be more moments that make the winter walks worthwhile. Perhaps the more worthwhile because of the familiarity.

Portrait of a grey heron

Grey heron - Terry Whittaker/2020VISION