Wildlife Column: Grey herons stalk the waterways

Heron at Ravensdale
Heron at Ravensdale

Standing outside Sheffield Hallam University’s city campus might not sound like a promising place to bird-watch.

However, with peregrine falcons close by, a pied wagtail roost down by the ‘Drum Kit’ buildings of the Students’ Union, and goldfinches in the smallish, planted trees, it is better than you might expect.

The heron stood silently and stationary

The other evening, down by where the Porter Brook runs close to BBC Radio Sheffield, a grey heron flew overhead like some evil spectre, croaked loudly and dropped down into the river hidden between high walls.

Recent work has improved the watercourse here and the habitat for a deeply urban site is quite remarkable. The heron stood silently and stationary like some sombre grey guardian of the riverside, but in reality awaiting its dinner. With improved water quality the rivers of Sheffield now hold a diversity of fish and of course there may be frogs and perhaps small mammals too.

Grey herons were still rather uncommon in the 1970s and 1980s as pesticides such as DDT prevented their breeding, and persecution devastated adult birds and especially nest-sites. Herons nest communally in heronries, from just a few pairs, to hundreds in medieval times.

After the removal of the worst offending pesticides from the food-chain and more general protection from illegal persecution, the heron has bounced back.

Not only do I see them near my workplace but at home too, as they fly across from the ponds at Oakes Park and at Graves Park. I also get sightings and photographs sent in by readers. For example, Dick Pitt of the Beauchief Environment Group sent a lovely photograph of a grey heron.

This was taken recently at the end of Ravensdale in the Derbyshire Peak District around 50 metres down from Cressbrook Schoolhouse.

Down in the World Heritage Site in Derbyshire’s Derwent Valley is the Cromford Canal, another place to get up close to waterbirds.

However, one of the special birds of the canal, particularly at this time of year, is the little grebe or dabchick. These tiny water-birds are stunning and this is a great place to see them close to.

Pairs of grebes are now spaced out in their linear territories all along the canal.