Nature Notes

By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

OUR living room windows give great views on to Farnley Hall Woods behind the house and on to the biggest of our four ponds. However, especially on sunny days, the reflections can be a source of confusion for the local wildlife. Recently my wife was startled to hear a loud crash and was dismayed to find a heron splayed out on the grass having taken off and flown into the glass. Thankfully it was only momentarily stunned, got to its feet and took off in the direction of the river.

We get herons a few times each year, usually early in the morning when all is quiet for they are very wary birds. On this occasion it had obviously dropped in to examine the pond even though it was frozen solid with a scattering of snow on the ice. Intriguingly, the next day it came back, this time stalking purposely and slowly along the edge of the ice but hunting for what? It was much too cold for frogs or newts to have woken from hibernation but on the bank were several heaps of vegetation which I had dragged out of the pond while thinning it out.

My conclusion was that it could only be hunting small rodents or even small birds like wrens or dunnocks which themselves could have been searching through the pond debris. It has been back a number of times since, again when the ponds have been frozen, casting its beady eye (pictured) over vegetation heaped beside other ponds or stood like a statue in patient ambush.

I did ask myself why, with the ponds iced over, would a heron not simply stay down at the river? Our ex-fisherman son supplied a possible answer for, in very cold weather, fish apparently tend to go deeper into warmer water perhaps making them inaccessible to a heron.

Herons are carnivorous and do not restrict themselves to aquatic prey and, especially when times get hard they will snap up anything going and there are recorded instances of them taking water birds up to the size of coots and moorhens. A few minutes of internet research comes up with instances of them catching, drowning and devouring starlings, ducklings, rats and even, in one particularly gruesome sequence of photos, a baby rabbit.

Cold-eyed and ruthless they may be but one has to admire their skill and patience. For me they are the most exciting of garden visitors and, given that our ponds do not contain ornamental fish, always most welcome.