Purple Heron – June 2016
Notes by Alan Harris and Sarah Harris on the first summer Purple Heron found at Rye Meads on the 11th June, at 0800, then subsequently showed well most of the day!
At around 0800 on 11 June 2016 I was undertaking a territory mapping breeding bird survey in the meadows at Rye Meads. It was a warm clear morning and I had already found and ringed two broods of Sedge Warblers so I was feeling quite pleased with myself. As is my custom I was keeping a weather eye out for other bird movements and a flying heron to the west (over the Draper hide scrape) caught my attention; there was just something unusual in its manner of flight which caused me to raise my bins to it. It was heading south but just as I got on it it turned directly toward me. As it did I was sure I saw sandy brown upperwing coverts. Interesting. It took an agonisingly long time to traverse the meadow, all the while flying absolutely straight on. It had a deep thin keel, extensive pale carpal area, the underparts seemed pale, both seemed cream, was that the early morning sun on it, or were they really grey? As it approached at just below pylon-line height it veered a little to pass to the north of me where I gradually got a side on view. It flew with the bill tilted up above the horizontal, the neck was well coiled, very thin head-on but very rounded as it came side on. It was more buoyant, with more evenly portioned wings, and slighter than Grey Heron. The feet seemed big, the bill proportionately longer and thinner and there was now no doubt that it was a Purple Heron. From the sandy brown wing coverts and pale cinnamon cream –even orange- underparts it was clearly a first-summer, with thin dark lines down its neck and a dark grey cap. It continued east and over the trees at the back of the meadow and was lost to view.
As far as I knew, the only other birder around was Sarah Harris, and, after some indecisive dithering I decided to go find her.
In the meantime, Sarah Harris was carrying out a Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) at the north end of the site and takes up the story…
I’d had a pretty good start to the morning with a Garden Warbler singing and Water Rails calling in places we had not noted them so far this year, and it is always nice to hear a Cuckoo singing. Nothing ground-breaking, but pleasant. It is the second time I have surveyed this BBS square – with waterbodies and reedbeds it makes for a more diverse square than my other, Norfolk farmland square. I’d met Jane Free carrying out her Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) on the site, so between us, we had the area thoroughly surveyed!! We compared notes and carried on our way. Half way along the second transect I popped out of a tunnel of hedgerow to see the sky again – which always makes me feel more comfortable when out birding! Herons had been chasing each other about this HMWT section of the Rye Meads all morning, but when another heron came flying towards me something made me raise my bins – I don’t know why, maybe it looked darker, or maybe I’m always raising my bins to stuff flying over! The heron was low, about house height and flying head on (east). It did look darker than a Grey Heron and the neck bowed down further, forming a sharp ‘keel’. I remember noticing this on Purple Herons in Spain but before anything properly registered the bird turned slowly to fly south-east, by now it was almost overhead, seeing me could have caused the change in direction. As it banked I could see its rufous thighs and an overall ‘warm’ colouration with darker streaks along the neck – it really was a Purple Heron!!!
It was now side on and as it flapped I noted the large pale brown/dark cream upper wing patches, contrasting with dark primaries and secondaries. It disappeared behind some nearby trees, so I ran along the footpath until it was back in view, now it was some distance, so I tried to take in as much information as I could – mainly noting that large kink in the neck and large bill – wide at the base making the join between its bill and top of the birds head flush – as if it had been hit on the top of the head! The primaries and secondaries, with the brown upper-wing coverts, made the bird look darker than a Grey Heron at a distance and the overall warm tones were obvious.
It continued to fly towards Roydon and was lost behind the trees surrounding Stansted Abbots South pits. The BBS was somewhat forgotten and I called Jan Swan to see if she was on site and with others from the Ringing Group, noting the time of 08:24am and a missed call from Jan. Jan answered straight away – ‘Hi, are you on site? You called?’ I asked hurriedly. ‘Yeah, your Dads just had…’ butting in I shouted ‘Purple Heron?!’, ‘Yeh’ said a momentarily bewildered Jan! Thank goodness for that (was the polite version of my thoughts…), I didn’t have my camera and it had been lost from view, knowing someone else had had it was a great relief!! I put the news out straight after the call and wrote ‘Purple Heron’ onto my BBS notes with a grin…what? it was seen during the survey!
Back to Alan at the other end of the site!
En route to find Sarah, I found Jan Swan. After telling Jan the news and her attempting to call Sarah, it seemed like only a moment later that Jans phone sprang to life with Sarah exclaiming that a Purple Heron had just flown over her! We gathered up a bemused Gary Gardiner (‘Gary, get in the car’ ‘What we going to see?’ ‘Three guesses!’).
We met up on the Toll road east of the Toll gate and decided to search the Stansted Abbots South pits. With no luck there we returned to the toll road (Sarah returned slowly, finishing her BBS transect with grim determination along the way!). Once we were all back at the toll road, we concentrated on what looked like the best Purple Heron habitat, the HMWT section of the Rye Meads reserve where the old gravel washing plant had been. We split up and suddenly it was flying over us to the mighty relief (and deep joy) of Gary and Jan. It appeared to drop down so Jan and Gary went off to try and relocate it. They flushed it from trees close to the bypass and it flew back west over the bridle path just as Sarah was coming up it and she about-turned and disappeared from view behind the bushes. Moments later she was back. ‘Perched up in a tree!’ she reported gleefully. At last we had it pinned down – but for how long? So far the response of local birders had been …..well…. nil, so some urgent telephone calls were needed. Soon people were arriving and the heron obligingly sat in view for around half an hour, allowing a few to connect and get some reassuring photographic evidence…
As the day wore on it showed on and off with some intermissions, and many went home happy, some with stunning shots.
Graham White (on a shopping trip) timed his arrival well to get a fly past view on borrowed binoculars. He thus joined me (AH) in the rather select band of people on their second Rye Meads Purple Heron, the first being from 2 September to 3 October 1972. Is there anyone else?