Throughout Axarquia there are large flocks of Cattle Egrets and Little Egrets, both members of the Heron family. Other herons that nest and breed in the area include Grey Herons, Purple Herons and Night Herons.
Cattle Egrets are white heron, about 50 centimetres in length, with stout yellow bills and in the breeding season with buff yellow-orange plumes on their heads, necks and backs.
Originally from Africa these birds have migrated to new areas in the last century. Cattle Egrets spend the day in wet pastures, often near herds of goats and sheep (and cows in other areas). They look for grasshoppers and beetles that are raised by the animals. Often they sit on the back of an animal, looking for ticks and flies. At nightfall they fly to their roosting places, following fixed routes often via river beds. They nest in trees near rivers, sometimes together with other birds.
Little Egrets are found in a diversity of open wetland type of habitat where they feed during the day on a varied diet of insects, frogs, reptiles, etc. They use a variety of hunting techniques including foot stirring with its bright yellow feet which seems to attract prey within the range of its bill.
If you’ve spent any time at all along the coast or inland in Axarquia you will have noticed these striking wading birds. Often seen in their classic hunting stance, standing in shallow water quietly watching for fish or frogs to swim by. If you are patient enough to watch them feed, you will be amazed at their lightning fast response and accuracy when they plunge their head underwater to nab a quivering fish. Though well suited for hunting in water, herons and egrets are also seen in open fields stalking mice and voles. These birds are voracious hunters and will eat about any animal big enough to see and small enough to swallow.
The Purple Heron is a very colourful large heron, with a distinctive snake-like neck which is usually held in a prominent kink. Its colourful plumage provides excellent camouflage among reeds. Purple Herons feed mainly on fish, but will also eat insects, amphibians, and occasionally shellfish, small mammals, reptiles and even small birds. They are shy and solitary hunters, and appear to hunt mostly at night continuing into the early morning. They don’t often wade in deep water and prefer to stand and wait in cover, staying motionless for long periods in shallow water or perched on low dense trees and bushes. Their slim bills are large and strong enough to kill even large snakes and their long necks give them a long and powerful reach.
One reason for their shyness could be because Grey Herons often steal the Purple Herons’ catch when they are hunting close to each other. Purple Herons become even more shy during breeding season, preferring to hunt near cover. Purple Herons defend their feeding territory from each other by aggressively puffing out neck feathers and raising crests. While Purple Herons prefer to roost in coastal areas, they usually feed in freshwater wetlands.
The Grey Heron is a large, eminent bird that is generally solitary except when breeding. It is easily distinguished from other species by its dark crown and yellow beak and eyes. They can be seen in fresh or salt water, clean or muddy, as long as the waters yield something worth while to eat.
The Grey Heron stands about 36 inches tall as an adult and in flight has a wing span of about 60 inches. Its feathers are bluish grey, black and white. Both sexes have a black crest, brown feet and yellow legs. In flight their legs are stretched out behind and their neck is tucked close to the body.
Like other herons, the Grey also dine mainly on fish, amphibians, small animals like mice, rats, bugs, and small reptiles. Sometimes they will eat crustaceans, mollusks, worms, small helpless birds and some plants.
This bird doesn’t always wait for quarry but stalks through the shallow water with long deliberate strides, neck muscles tensed and with lightening speed spears the fish with its pointed, dagger like beak.
The Grey Heron’s bill is usually yellow and changes to deep orange when a flock congregates for courtship. When the male and female pair up for mating and breeding they perform a subdued bill snapping movement toward each other. Within the courting area they run and hop in one direction and then another with their wings wide open.
During February they soar over the nesting platform chasing one another, tilting from side to side and diving head first into thin air. Continuous displays occur on old nest platforms and consist of complicated neck movements with crest and neck feathers erect, bill snapping. These herons also use a variety of loud and noisy calls. Young Grey Herons breed for the first time during their second or third year. The usual number of eggs laid is three or four. The eggs take four weeks to hatch and the young birds stay in the nest about 7 weeks.
Away from the colony a solitary bird in flight will utter a common call which is a noisy, grating, cough like sound.
Egrets and herons vigorously defend their feeding territories from other members of the same species. Between the two, the heron generally drives off the egret. However during breeding season, it is very common to see colonies of egrets and herons nesting side by side in the same tree. It is hard to believe, but these long-legged birds actually nest in the tops of tall trees. Nesting in trees is a good strategy for protection against predators, but a challenge for large, top-heavy birds with very long legs. They build a nest platform from large sticks and generally lay three to four eggs in early spring. The herons begin nesting in mid-February and the egrets start about a month later.
Herons and egrets are great birds to watch if you are new to twitching. Their large size, abundance and interesting behavior provides many hours of enjoyable viewing. In urban areas, these birds have acclimated to people so you can get a close view of them hunting without disturbing them. However, nesting is a different matter. There are a several places around Axarquia where you can observe nesting egrets and herons, but only from a distance with binoculars. Go out and enjoy watching these magnificent birds, but remember, you are a guest in their home and any disturbance you cause may force them to abandon their nests.