The black-crowned king of spring

Blog post by Oscar Lawrence on 01 May, 2024
Binoculars, telescope and camera at the ready, I strode into the visitor centre and gazed up at the sightings board. A quick scan of the names and one made my heart race - a night heron! I had an idea about where the bird might be, so I quickly set off in search.
 
Every crunch of the gravel beneath my feet was a fresh reminder that the bird could fly off at any second! It was agonising, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. As I made my way into the reserve, a cetti’s warbler shouted its explosive song from the dense reed stands and a marsh harrier trailed overhead, its wings glinting in the sun.
 
After what had seemed like seconds, I arrived at my destination. I looked up into the trees to see if I could spot the rare heron, then arrived at a huddle of birdwatchers with telescopes directed into the copse. I set down my own scope and began to ask around. A kind birder dressed head-to-toe in camouflage explained where the heron was, and it was then that I spotted it perched on high.
 
In a gap in the ivy, a nocturnal marvel clung to a tendril of bark. Head tucked under its wing and fast asleep, only cloud-grey wings, a tufted black back and a pair of bright flesh-pink legs were visible. I stared in admiration at this incredible migrant. It had flown from the reedbeds and marshes of southern Europe to get to Cley. Their habitat requirements are simple: warm weather, water in which to fish and dense scrub to roost in. Could it be climate change allowing this species to move north? It could well be.
 
Being nocturnal, the heron wanted to rest before an evening of hunting, but that wasn’t easy among other very much awake birds. Egrets were jumping from branch to branch and letting off explosive squawks for much of the time, bothering the sleeping heron. It grumpily reshuffled, exposing its head; a smooth black cap, dagger-like bill and a ruby eye set deep in its face. When it gave its neck a stretch, a long snowy plume was visible running along the top of its yellow-buff neck. This intricate plumage and rosy legs meant this bird was a breeding adult. As rain started to drizzle, I packed up my telescope, content with my views of a lifer!
 
A rogue individual among its congeners, delighting the local birders, this night heron visitor is a keen reminder of the advancing changes in climate.
 
Many species are moving north into the UK as warmer weather is becoming more frequent here. This doesn't just allow southern species to move north though; northern species will soon have nowhere to go; Bewick's swans are now short stopping on migration in Germany as they have no need to migrate. Soon there may be no place with both the correct temperature and habitat.
 
Although despite the looming feeling of darker times to come, it is a real treat to have remarkable new species breeding in the UK. Bee-eaters were a nesting and fledging first in Norfolk in 2022, and glossy ibises are finding their way across wetlands in the south in rather large numbers.
 
An amazing one hundred night herons were spotted across the nation in 2023, setting a new record, ninety birds higher than an average year. An amazing increase from a truly amazing bird. Hopefully there will be many this year too.
 
If you have a local wooded waterway, check it, and then check it again! These herons are uncannily good at hiding in dense scrub and are most active at dusk, so look for a stocky slow-winged silhouette in the hours enveloping sunset. You may just find a black-crowned king of spring.
 
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