An old friend returned. It was the wife who saw him first .We were walking alongside the river bank just as the snows had begun to clear. The fallen leaves were an umber and sienna mulch underfoot. Of course, I was negotiating a particularly squidgy muddy track ,assessing the glour and the glit, all the while searching with a beady eye ,swivelling to avoid the inevitable dogshit. Most of that talk about “pick it up and bin it” goes unheeded from my experience.I wasn’t looking up at the right moment or even far -enough ahead to get the initial viewing. The first movement that caught that eye was a runt of a grey squirrel, arms outstretched as it skittered ,akimbo around the base of a leafless tree.Then …a flicker in the stillnesss…there he was ,the wading fisherman with the beady eyes ;the big heron had returned again this winter to try his luck one more time.He was actually standing only a matter of yards away , stock-still in the middle of the pathway.The long knock-kneed knitting -needle spindles for legs ; that pointed orange lance of a beak and the light glinting on his creamy, greyish plumage.What an impressive gimlet-eyed dinosaur he seemed to be and so incongruous in this current setting .
I’ve seen this suave fellow on several other occasions over the years but never as close as this. Surely , it must be the same one returning to an old patch in some migratory rythmn? In fact I’ve learned to watch out for him during winter as the leaves blow away from the trees and the skeletons of winter peep out to scrape the skies.In fact I had thought of him only days before.There is none of the summer’s cover to hide a multitude of winter activity . It is at this time when many hidden things are exposed. Instead of the green canopy there was the lattice-work of a twiggy spider’s -web of branches high above; the winter’s milky light, now seeping through the greasy clouds above.
It’s always that same moment of recognition , but it is essentially like confronting a ghostly presence. This bird is big and there’s a distinct fairy-tale quality about its demeanour. He’s a bit like that old stork , illustrated by Arthur Rackham that was painted in subtle washes of tinted greenish-white watercolour a century ago in the illustrated storybooks, the new- born babe swinging in its little white hammock of swaddling , from that long beak as another delivery was made to a new mother. If you can imagine a golden eagle landing in your backyard to carry off a snack from the bird table or a flamingo or a pelican dropping down onto your front lawn amidst the sparrows and finches, it will give you some idea of the context of seeing this fellow on the well-used pathway. It’s not his usual place.That place is usually reserved for yapping, snuffling dogs.
I’ve never known this river to have ever supported any kind of fish-life. To call it a river is something of a misnomer, I suppose .I’ve always known it as the Folly River since I was a small boy, playing and paddling in it some sixty years ago , but in reality it is more of a stream running through what had always been a beauty -spot…Dobbin’s Flowery Vale of which song has been written. At one time it sported a picturesque waterfall, situated just above the old “haunted mill” which was something of a folly itself, but that waterfall had gone long-ago like childhood itself and has since been diverted or lost to encroaching undergrowth. Were there even sticklebacks in this stream? How long had it been since I saw even as much as a frog along the banks? What exactly could a big predatory bird like this expect to spear here with that rapier of a beak? It’s not as if this stretch of waterway was ever a haven for anglers.I’d imagine children fishing with a jampot on a string would have problems enticing any kind of aquatic life into their traps.
I’d forgotten my phone ,as usual , so it was up to the good wife to get her fancy iPhone out and film this unique event. “Don’t scare him off “, I whispered as we stood still.As the button was pressed he took to the sky , flying in a langourous arc above our heads, silhouetted against the twigs and the afternoon sky like some ancient , gliding archaeopteryx.He lazily flapped several yards downriver before landing at the very topmost branches of the tallest tree. “Ha ha” , I chuckled …he had disturbed another squirrelway up there as he settled to preen and poke at his feathers high above us .The squirrel was taking no chamces with this huge and unexpected intruder and skittered away from this huge interloper.I wondered was it possible that a bird such as this would include the odd squirrel on his teatime menu. They are rodents ,after all ,and herons will eat mice and rats besides the usual fish and insects, I was thinking.They’ve been known to actually use bits of bread and insects as lures to draw fish into the shadow of their hunched killing field, so for a bird of some wily intelligence, I suppose anything is possible.This particular squirrel was fast and something of an acrobat so I don’t think he would be gracing any table soon though.
“Take some shots of him against the sky” , I said and as I closed my mouth he immediately took to the air , high above our craning necks and once again and swooped back in the direction of our return journey home. We caught up with him again and filmed some more “footage”before he finally left us entirely.
“Well….that was pretty interesting “, I thought ….”and something of a novelty too”.
Back home , as the good wife swept through the images it became apparent that she would unfortunately not make the grade as one of Spielberg’s cinematographers. The film of the heron arcing against the sky in all its aerial glory was nowhere to be seen and as for the him silently preening in the treetops ….well forget about that indistinct , webbed rickle of twigs and tangled branches. There wasn’t much to see.
All that remained was our own memory of the event.We may as well have tried to catch one of those ghosts in a bottle .