The Grey Heron is an unmistakable bird, the largest common land bird that can be seen in Britain and also the most widespread heron in Europe. It can be found along almost all waterways, from lakes, rivers, marshes and estuaries to the simple garden pond, where, with its fish diet, it is not the most welcome of visitors!
Grey Herons are tall, slender, elegant birds with a heavy, dagger-like bill, long legs and grey, black and white plumage. When fishing knee deep in water, an adult Grey Heron presents an impressive sight. The long neck is fully extended and the stealth of such a big bird is a marvel.
In flight, the size of Grey Herons really becomes apparent. The overall appearance is of a huge greyish bird flying very slowly on bowed wings with a series of deep wingbeats, its neck held hunched and long legs trailing. The underwing will appear blackish and the black flank line will be quite obvious, even at considerable distance.
The adult’s head is white, with two broad black stripes running over the back of the crown and extending, in the breeding season, into slim black head plumes. The neck is white, washed pale grey on the sides, with black flecks running from the throat to the belly. Breeding birds have shaggy plumes on the lower breast. The flanks are black, with white on the belly extending to the vent, with a dark undertail. The upperparts are bluegrey, with a black ‘shoulder’ and pale silvery plumes over the wing. The bill is orangeyellow. The eye and legs are yellowish.
Juvenile Grey Herons always appear slightly stockier than adults and are always darker, usually grey but sometimes brown. The head lacks the white and black badger stripes of the adult, the forehead, crown and nape all being dark grey, with only a white throat for contrast. The upperparts and underparts are generally dull grey, lacking plumes and shoulder patch. The bill is brownishgrey with a yellowish-grey lower mandible. The eye is dull yellow and the legs are olive.
Grey Herons will invariably call in flight, a loud hard ‘frank’ or ‘krank’.
Grey Herons are communal nesters often favouring woodland trees as a breeding site, but they also breed in reedbeds and, occasionally, on cliffs. The nest-building and display rituals start in late January and, when presented with a suitable stick or twig, much bill-snapping and calling breaks out.
This juvenile is captured in classic pose, waiting to seize the moment and pounce on its prey.
A masterfullooking bird, the Grey Heron looks best when standing serenely on a boulder, midriver, surveying its territory, plumes flapping gently.
Grey Herons, when sleeping, can be surprisingly easy to overlook, particularly if asleep on a reedbed fringe. Seemingly oblivious to disturbance, they can remain hunched up for long periods of time.