Derek, one of our group members, visited the RSPB reserve at Northward Hill. No, not recently but over 50 years ago in the 1960s! As a young lad, Derek had persuaded his father to take him (by bus!) to see the herons. They were met by this very distinguished gentlemen wearing a tie and breeks who was the warden. ( I think this must have been a warden employed by the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) not the RSPB – but more about this in another post). He gave them a tour of the heronry in what we now know as the “Sanctuary”. Visits were by permit only.
Derek thinks that the warden was actually living in the hut. Inside it was decorated with the tails of grey squirrels. Perhaps culling grey squirrels was part of the warden’s job. Perhaps he just liked barbequed squirrel. But Derek didn’t go to see the warden, he wanted to see the grey herons nesting in what was the largest colony in the UK. This wonderful photograph of adult and young was taken in 1921 – the earliest picture of the Northward Hill herons that I have found. Derek tells me that he does not remember too much about his visit – but he must surely have been impressed by the sights, sound and smell of about 200 pairs of herons and their young. In the 2000s, I was lucky to be able to visit the heronry to count the nests – herons are huge, the noise was amazing and under the nests it was very very smelly!
Grey herons are very early nesters. They start to gather along a ditch just below the heronry. This can be as early as January but usually by the middle of February the numbers start to build up. They move into the wood and start to renovate their old nests. If we were able to visit today I would expect to see lots of nests with young. But it does not always go to plan. Frozen ditches in February can cause high mortality and strong winds can blow nests and young out of the bare trees.
Fallen nests, as well as being extremely pungent, are great to study. This one was blown down by the wind but on one occasion when a tree was cut down, the nest was retrieved, packed in the back of a Landrover and taken to entomologists for further study! The best find was two female Ceratophyllus vagabundus insularis Rothschild – a flea. This was the first time it had been found in Kent! How good is that. What a find. Who would not want to be the first person to find a new flea for Kent? Just in case you are wondering what “Rothschild” has to do with this, Charles Rothschild, from the very wealthy banking family, was a world expert on fleas. He was the first person to describe and name this species. So his name is always added after the name of the flea. The entomologists also found over 20 species of beetle in the nest.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is now responsible for looking after the grey herons. Today, we always talk about conservation and habitat management. The word “Protection” is often forgotten. If the grey herons were not protected (from us) they would have deserted the wood years ago – no doubt taking their fleas with them.
Thanks to Derek for sharing his photograph.