Sunday, May 01, 2016

Secret Valley Herons

A few weeks ago, I received an email with a couple of photographs attached  taken on a compact camera of a heron nest. This  had been sent to a photographer I know who lives down south, who knowing it was in my area, then forwarded it on to me. The nest was supposed to be one of around ten at a location close to home, which I have driven past many times, and never knew a heronry was there. My good friend lives just round the corner from the herons and he did not know they were there either. So before I get any further I would like to send a big thanks to Ben for sharing the information with me.

The heronry is on the edge of a new housing estate located in a narrow, shallow heavily wooded valley. Where birds have nested in the tops of trees growing from the valley base, by standing on the valley ridge effectively puts you at the interesting perspective of being level with the nests. Given the dense tree growth along the side of the valley there is only one small gap which is clear of vegetation to allow you to photography the birds. When I say small I mean its a 2ft clear hole through the branches which, with some careful camera positioning allows you to photograph three different nests. Each of the nests was occupied one with 4 well grown young, another with 3 and the third with an adult bird which was presumably sitting on eggs.
This is the first time I have photographed a herons nest and it reminded me a little of a scene from Jurassic Park especially with the 'primeval' sounds of birds from adjacent nests as adults came back and forth with sticks to build up their nest or fish to feed their rapidly growing young. I did three sessions in total before the spring tree growth obscured by small window through the trees. It proved to be a waiting game as the action only really starts in earnest when the adult returns to the nest with the next fish meal which seemed to occur every 60 to 90 minutes. In the intervening time, the chicks would spend their time sleeping, preening, moving sticks around and stretching their wings and building their wing muscles with some flapping exercise.

Here is a short video to show what I mean:
Herons Nest from Richard Steel on Vimeo.

On the video you can hear the sounds of birds on other nests nearby. It must be quite a noisy place at times for the local residents but from the few I spoke to out walking their dogs it appears they have a great fondness for the herons. One cold morning whilst waiting for an adult to return I was even offered a cup of tea by the owner of the house over the road from where I was stood.

It soon became obvious that the nest I was concentrating my attention on the most, (the one with three chicks) that the adults had found an easy food source as they were bring back large goldfish and golden orfe to feed the young. No doubt someones back garden pond was being steadily emptied of fish. When wildlife is offered an easy food source you cant blame it for exploiting it. Optimal foraging in action with maximum energy gain from minimum energy expenditure.

The main challenges with photographing the birds was trying to get all the birds facing in a good direction, one session I arrived to find a thick mist in the valley and also with the cold weather on the morning when I managed to eventually get some sun a heat haze rapidly developed.

Below is a further selection of images from the three short  but enjoyable morning sessions at the Secret Valley with the herons.
It was wonderful to get an insight into their lives that you don't normally see and good to watch a flourishing population of birds so close to home. I am sure I will return once more next year to observe, photograph and learn some more.


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