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Birding with Nico Myburgh
Cover, Village Life No 29

From Issue No 29

The Heron and the eel


Grey HeronArdea cinerea (Afrikaans: Blou Reier)


The Grey Heron occurs over the whole of South Africa, sometimes together in large numbers. They are at home wherever shallow bodies of water occur, in the Karoo, open grasslands, forests and lagoons, and all along the coast. They are absent from the very arid regions of Namibia and central Botswana, and are also not often seen in the dry northwestern Cape.

The Grey Heron is similar in size to the Black-headed Heron, but the latter forages on dry ground rather than in water. At a distance the Grey Heron will look generally lighter-hued than the Black-headed Heron, and it has a yellowish bill and legs, not slaty grey.

This is the record of a bad day in the life of one particular Grey Heron. It was midsummer and the water in the pan near where we lived had dropped to half a metre – ideal for wading water birds, especially the herons, who could now wade through the pan anywhere they liked.

I put up a hide at the water’s edge, to photograph any water birds that came my way. The first bird to land near the hide was a Grey Heron. They use their long necks and straight bills as a spear for fishing. Ten minutes later the heron stuck out its neck and bill and with a typical spearing action caught an eel of about 25 cm long. It wasted no time in immediately swallowing the eel whole and alive. About 20 minutes later it caught a second one about the same size, which went the same way as the first. Then, another 15 minutes later, it caught a third one, which it also swallowed whole and alive.

I thought three eels in less than an hour would be sufficient for one day. The heron had other ideas. Thirty minutes later it lined up its spear again, and jabbed the water. It seemed to have trouble this time, but a few minutes later it pulled out its neck, and – lo and behold – it had a fully grown eel about 80 cm long, which it dragged out on to the mud. There, after a struggle of about 30 minutes, it eventually got the eel’s head into its mouth. It started to swallow the eel, which was very much alive. Another 15 minutes passed before it managed to get the whole eel into its throat.

But that was only the beginning of the struggle. It stood there with its feet wide apart and neck straight up in the air, like a wooden model of a heron. Then all over it started to bulge out in bumps, then the neck started bulging as well, the bulges moving up towards the beak. Then the top of the head started bulging too. I then realized what was happening.

The eel went down head first into the heron’s stomach. It must have seen what was happening to its younger brothers, so it decided it was not going to end up a white splash on the mud like they did. That’s when it proved an eel is a born survivor. It turned around, worked out what was the best way out, then worked its way out to where it came from. Meanwhile the poor old heron was still anchored with its legs wide apart, but try as it may, it could not reswallow the eel. This whole performance took about 30 minutes, then suddenly the head of the eel popped out. The body followed, shiny and clean this time – remember, it was full of mud when it was swallowed.

With a loud “plop” sound it hit the mud again and immediately started off, then head first it went into a crack in the mud, while the heron desperately tried to stop it. All that happened was that the heron got a slap in the face from the eel’s paddle-shaped tail. It almost knocked the heron over. Then down into the mud went the eel. From there to the water was only about 3 metres.

The heron stood up straight, took one look at the pan and decided it had enough of pans of water and eels to last it a lifetime. It took off into the sunset, probably intending to go and live somewhere where it would be away from all water pans, and best of all, away from all eels.

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The Grey Heron is very similar to the Black-headed Heron in size and colouring

The Grey Heron is very similar to the Black-headed Heron in size and colouring

The heron gets hold of the eel and eventually manages to swallow it...

The heron gets hold of the eel and eventually manages to swallow it...

Grey Heron

...but then the eel decides to come back...

Grey Heron

...and makes a quick getaway!

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