Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with an EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens, on Gitzo 1548 tripod and Wimberley Gimbal type head, ISO 200, 1/2000 sec at f/5.6. Exposure determined manually off sky and adjusted.

This project has been going on for some six months starting back in October 2011.

The Start

Whilst walking one morning in early October, I noticed a number of herons flying and carrying nesting material in their bills. Some of this building material was very large as you can see from one of the main images on the home page. This needed further investigation and the nesting site was found – two tall pine trees on the bank of a dam on the old Bramble Hill golf course. Whilst looking quite innocuous from far, closer inspection revealed many breeding pairs of Black -headed Herons (Ardea melanocephala), African Darters (Anhinga rufa) and Reed Cormorants (Phalacrocorax africanus). The next day I was back with cameras and the “big glass” as I could not get close to them. They were on the far side of the dam and facing East, so morning sun was the best light, but the trees were some 90 meters distant. There was lots of activity with the herons constantly leaving the nest and returning with sticks and twigs. In fact in some cases an entire bush, as can be seen in the image below.

           Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with EF 800mm f/5.6L IS lens and 1.4x TC. ISO 400, 1/640 sec @ f/8.

Breeding behaviour and characteristics

It was most interesting to observe the behaviour. When one of the pair landed on the nest and deposited the twig or branch, the other heron would get excited and there would be much bill clicking or feeding.

I was amazed at the eye color change as well. It seemed that just before they commenced breeding their eye color changed to red. Once the eggs were laid or the chicks hatched then their color reverted back to the normal yellow. Many images were captured, particularly in flight, where the eye color could be distinctly seen.

On the right is an image of a pair engaged in “bill clicking”. This pair still had or had reverted to yellow eyes. These sorts of images were particularly difficult to capture as the tree with its many small branches, leaves and cones always seemed to intrude. These images all necessitated using the 800mm lens with a 1.4x TC, always tricky and needing careful lens technique. They  required quite a lot of cropping to get the birds prominent in the frame.

The Chicks and Juveniles

Chicks were soon evident and were also difficult to photograph, but they did become visible when one of the adults returned with food. In the following image the chick can be clearly seen as well as two adults with different eye colours – from two separate adjoining nests.

The juveniles took close to three months before they undertook their first flight.  Their coloring is quite different from the adult with a buff color on the front of their necks as opposed to the black spotted neck color on the adult. Whilst fledging, they ate voraciously and exercised their wings to a greater and greater extent. They would often sit on the very top of the tree and flap their wings – sometimes coming close to falling off in the wind.

I visited the heronry about twice a week for four months waiting for the juvenile herons to fly for the first time. However, there was lots of other activity at the Heronry with the Darters breeding prolifically. It was interesting to see the big difference between the chick, juvenile and adult Darters which was far more distinct than the herons. In fact as chicks they looked very strange.

There are a number of images of the Darters on my “Darters at the Heronry” gallery on Smugmug.

First Flight

In mid-February the juveniles which had hatched in early November took their first tentative flight. They would balance on the end of a branch and then take off, do a small circuit and fly back to the same branch. The actual flight was very good, but the landing looked something like a novice pilot.

                    Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with a 500mm f/4L IS lens, hand held, ISO 400, 1/2000 sec at f/5.6

The above image is a juvenile undertaking its first flight. Again the buff-coloured neck is clearly visible as compared with the black-speckled neck (in flight) of the adult as illustrated in the final image.

                       Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with 500mm f/4L IS lens, hand-held, ISO 200, 1/1600 sec @ f/5.6.

It has been a fascinating time. The photographic opportunities, whilst challenging, were good and the observation of the entire breeding cycle was a unique experience. The only negative is that it seems  the trees that were used for the heronry may well die because of the quantity of  excrement from all the birds, which seems to be killing off the leaves.

For more Black-headed Heron images click on this link to the featured gallery  in Smugmug.