The Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) is the tallest bird in the UK and is almost lanky-looking because of its long thin legs. It can often be found standing very still near canals, lakes, slow-flowing rivers and estuaries. It is a wading bird and like its name suggests it is mainly grey coloured, but it has a white head, chest and belly. It has a wispy crest of black feathers on the top of its head and black feathers running down the length of its long throat. It also has black feathers above each eye.
When a Grey Heron rests near water it often places its head between its shoulder in an hunched up position and stands very still and silent so it is easy to walk past a heron. However, you may spot it more easily in your garden if you have a pond since it likes to steal goldfish! When the Grey Heron hunts for fish in natural water it can stand motionless for a long period of time holding its neck in an elongated ‘S’ position ready to strike. It uses its long and pointed dagger-like beak to stab at a fish several times before eating it. If it catches a large fish the heron takes it out of the water and breaks it up into small pieces on land. Sometimes Grey Herons will eat small mammals, small birds, frogs and insect larvae and in coastal areas they will eat eels and crabs.
The Grey Heron has a wingspan of nearly two metres and in flight it curves its wings into an ‘M’ shape and beats them very slowly. It flies with its head drawn back into its body, but with its legs trailing horizontally behind, and often in flight it makes a very loud and harsh ‘frarnk’ or ‘kaark’ sound. When the heron is in flight the black outer feathers on the wings can be seen.
During the mating season Grey Herons perform wonderful courtship dances for the females. The male stretches his neck to the sky and then bends it very elegantly backwards until it touches his back. If they like each other, they both snap their beaks at each other while they run and hop towards each other with outstretched wings.
The male and female like to build their nest together very high up in tree tops close to water in woodland areas. The nests are made out small branches and twigs and are shallow and almost saucer-shaped. Nests are often built close to other nests creating a heronry. The female lays five greenish blue eggs and the chicks hatch out about twenty six days later. The chicks are fed on regurgitated fish and after about twenty or thirty day they are able to leave the nest to climb up and down branches. When they are approximately fifty days old they get their first set of feathers making them ready to leave the nest.