The Harnser

If the marsh harrier (Circus aeruginosus)has become the most iconic bird of the Norfolk Broads, it is probably because it has usurped the grey heron (Ardea cinerea). The general public always tend to romanticise raptors, which I guess is understandable. Those large carnivorous killing machines, the hawks, harriers and eagles, stir something in the human psyche. They are associated with wild places and wild ways, their predations not only expected but forgiven. The grey heron, however is viewed as a riverbank angler, standing gently in the shadows watching for its fish. Like an over-sized kingfisher. All of which allows the grey heron to get away with murder. Literally. Those of us who see them often will know their proclivity for mischief.

The grey heron is also known locally in Anglia as the ‘harnser’ or anthropomorphically referred to as ‘Old Frank’. Over the years here in East Anglia I have seen Old Frank in all his guises and they aren’t always gentlemanly. Fish are high on the herons menu but they are omnivorous. Beetles, worms, moles, voles, mice, rabbit kits, rats, frogs, eels and grass snakes. The harnser will take the eggs of ground nesting birds and my (poor) pictures here show Old Frank raiding a pheasants nest and taking a flightless poult. This encounter fascinated me. Not because the heron took the poult but because the hen pheasant put up a hell of a challenge, trying to rescue her youngster. The heron, however, was too powerful to resist and stole away with the chick.

Heron Pheasant (11)Heron Pheasant (8)

The cover picture here shows a heron I saw on a water meadow at twilight. It’s wing was broken. I strongly suspect that it either hit a nearby power line or had attempted to raid eggs in a swan nest and had been attacked. If the latter, then it deserved its fate. I watched a fox prowling nearby but couldn’t intervene as I was on a public footpath. The herons demeanour, given its incapacity, was serene; resigned. I left the scene but returned the next morning to see the birds ragged body lying in the damp grass of the meadow. Old Charlie had taken advantage, something he would be reluctant to do if the harnser was in full health. The herons size matches that of a golden eagle. It is a formidable predator with superb sight, a dagger-like beak and the lightning strike of a snake.

It is a privilege to watch them hunt and to soar above the marshes and meadows here; I know they predate far more wildlife than the marsh harrier.

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2015

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