Introduction to herons & crakes

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Herons are long-legged water birds that mainly hunt by slow-moving surprise and, except for the spoonbill, have long dagger-like bills. The spoonbill has an unusual flat bill shaped like a spoon with which it filters its food. It recently started breeding in East Anglia again and even more recently in Essex.

The grey heron is the commonest member of the family and can be seen almost anywhere there is water, including garden ponds. The bittern is streaked brown to camouflage it in its favourite reedbed habitat, and is most often known to be present only through its deep, booming call. Once common in East Anglia it is now only a rare winter visitor to Essex, although recent conservation efforts have seen numbers increasing again.

Two continental species have extended their range northwards into Britain. The little egret has been an increasingly common visitor from the continent mostly in winter. Recently it started to breed here and is now widespread. Its larger relative, the great white egret is following in its footsteps.

Crakes are small- to medium-sized almost chicken-like water birds that favour wet margins in amongst thick vegetation. Water rail is more often heard than seen, its squeals and grunts often being likened to a pig. It is a shy bird and if seen it is usually skulking along the vegetation edge on a lake or a pond.

Moorhen is a common bird, picking about around ponds, streams, rivers and lakes. Coot is another well known bird on lakes and rivers, diving to catch fish, easily recognised by its black body with white bill and forehead.

© David Harrison