BLAGDON LAKE BIRDS

Purple Heron



Purple Heron Ardea purpurea [Linnaeus, 1766]

Purple Heron A.p. purpurea

(Extremely rare vagrant SV)

  1. One, probably 2nd-year, 12th-17th May 1963 (R.J. Prytherch et al.).

The entry in Somerset Birds 1963, reads "an immature, probably second year, Blagdon res. (Ubley end), May 12-17, was first reported by R.J.P. who has supplied field drawings and fully detailed notes on size, behaviour and plumage. The bird, darker, slimmer and a little smaller than A. cinerea, and sometimes tending to 'freeze' rather than take flight, was seen by more than a dozen observers - usually in close proximity of reeds and withies. Record, first for the County, accepted by British Birds Rarities Committee." Note, the dates were given as 12th-16th May in the Bristol Bird Report 1963 and Birds at Blagdon Lake 1963-1983.

Robin Prytherch wasn't entirely sure where he'd found the bird when I asked him about it (50 years later) for this account, but a map he gave me showed it to have been on the south side towards Top End, and from the description I would say it was around Bell's Bush, probably Flower Corner. He very kindly let me borrow a copy of his submission to the British Birds Rarities Committee which reads as follows:

"I was walking around the lake in order to obtain a total count of the wildfowl present, and in particular to count the broods of ducklings. The sky was overcast and a strong south to south-westerly wind had been blowing all day. I entered an area, very approximately 50 yards x 40 yards, mainly of flooded reedy grass surrounded by willow thickets and a hedge. While searching the area, with my binoculars, for duckling broods, I suddenly came upon a heron. I was in full view to the bird which was about 25 yards away. I was immediately suspicious because it did not flush, (it was, in fact, in a 'frozen' attitude, with body almost horizontal, head well down, and bill pointing slightly upwards) it had rufous and brown colouring, and was boldly striped black and white on the front of its neck. I immediately established that the bird was a Purple Heron Ardea purpurea. After approximately 2 minutes the bird flew away to another part of the lake. The time was 5 pm.

Fortunately, the bird stayed at the lake for a further 5 days, 13th to 17th May, and many local people managed to see it. I myself saw it on four of the days, 13th to 16th, and on one occasion had extremely good views of it for a continuous period of approx. 1/2 hour, in sunlight, at only 10 to 15 yards range.

The following details were observed:

The crown was black merging into deep chestnut at the back of the crown (nape??). This chestnut was mostly concealed by long black feathers of the crest which hung down the back of the neck. The sides of the face, sides and back of the long neck were pale rufous with faint indication of darker lines from the 'base' of the cutting edge of the bill to the back of the crown, and down the back of the neck. The rufous extended round to the front of the neck just below the throat, but for about one inch only. The chin, throat and cheeks were white. Below this, the front of the neck was boldly striped black and white, with the feathers being elongated towards the base. At all times there was a very noticeable 'kink' in the neck, about half way down. The feathers at the sides and back at the base of the neck were buff-grey (merging into the rufous, and black and white feathers on the other parts of the neck). This colouring also extended onto the upper part of the mantle, the main part of which was grey, with a tinge of brown. The back was also grey, tinged with brown. The scapulars were grey-brown with some thin elongated pale buff feathers hanging over the wings. The wing coverts were dull grey-brown - all feathers having buff edging. A few of the feathers were smudged with pale chestnut. When seen in flight, the primaries and secondaries appeared black. Also, a very small area of pale buff feathers was seen on the leading edge of each wing, at the carpal joint. There were patches of chestnut (at most times concealed by the closed wings) on each side of the breast, but the centre of the breast, belly, and under tail coverts were buff, with darker brownish streaks. The feathers on the tibia were pale buff. (The tail, upper tail coverts and rump were not seen at close range, but in flight appeared very dark.).

The very long bill was dark brown along the culmen, merging into yellow along the sides and at the tip of the upper mandible. The lower mandible was all yellow, but paler towards the base (on both mandibles), and merging into very pale green lores. The iris(es) were yellow. The legs were yellow and black - yellower towards the top. The tarsus and toes were almost completely black.

The bird tended to keep to the well sheltered parts of the lake where there is plenty of cover. The 'freeze' attitude mentioned above was also seen again when the bird landed on an open section of the lake-side after being flushed by four other people. On one occasion the bird was feeding very near a Common Heron Ardea cinerea and this showed up the Purple Heron as a much darker, slightly smaller, and slimmer bird than its companion.

I think that the bird is an immature Purle Heron in its second year.

Attached are sketches of the bird, redrawn from rough sketches and notes taken while observing it."

Robin J. Prytherch, 24.6.1963.

I am extremely grateful to Robin for providing this fascinating insight into his find and pleased to be able to digitise his notes for posterity. This remains the only recorded instance of Purple Heron at Blagdon, but given the expansion of the heron family into Britain, perhaps another will be found soon, especially if they become established on the Somerset Levels.

Bibliography (sources of information)

  1. Davis, A.H. Birds at Blagdon Lake 1963-1983. Bristol Ornith. 18: 102-116. Bristol Ornithological Club.
  2. Davis, H.H. (ed.). Bristol Bird Report, 1963. Bristol Naturalists' Society.
  3. Davis, H.H. (ed.). Somerset Birds, 1963. Somersetshire Archaeol. & Nat. Hist. Soc.
  4. Prytherch, R.J. Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) at Blagdon Lake, Somerset, 12th May, 1963.

Updated 24 February, 2013