The heron took centre stage, like a ballerina on opening night.
Grace, balance and beauty. A delicate dance by a delicate creature that appeared to float on air.
The stage on this occasion was patch of immaculately mown lawn at a winery/restaurant near Richmond. And the backdrop, the scenery, was the sweeping vista of the Coal River estuary as it reaches the sea.
Pirouetting and leaping into the air, the white-faced heron hunted worms just below the surface of the grass, stamping its long-toed feet to encourage invertebrates to come to the surface, as silver gulls do.
I had met journalist colleagues for coffee one sunny winter morning but instead of discussing newspapers, as we always do, I was transfixed by the heron.
It was good to see the heron because the species had been missing in the past year from the normal places I see them close up, ironically the suburban streets near my home in the WaterworksValley.
In spring they arrive with the certainty of a cuckoo-clock chiming the hour when they suddenly appear in the suburbs to hunt skinks. The first warm rays of sunshine in mid-September brings out the skinks from hibernation and in turn brings out the herons.
I see them pacing the warm pavements and if disturbed by walkers and, more likely, neighbourhood dogs, the herons retreat to rooftops, until the danger has passed.
I remember seeing one once on a neighbour’s roof, like the stork of European folklore, the ones that are supposed to bring babies.
The storks of Europe perch on tiled or thatched roofs, the Hobart heron in question was on a hot tin roof that grew hotter by the minute as the sun rose. The heron hopped from one foot to the other, ungainly and ill-at-ease in a manner so unlike a laid-back languid heron, until it realised what was going on and floated down to the wet lawn of my garden to allow its feet to cool off.
I cannot explain why the herons did not come this year. I keep records of bird sightings and in 12 years it was the first time I had not seen them in my suburb.
I hold fears about the very powerful poisons that are increasingly in use in suburban gardens to control rodents and other pests like slugs. These can be easily consumed by all manner of birds from hawks to herons, either eaten directly or building up in the bodies of prey species like rats, mice and lizards and skinks.
The white-faced heron is found throughout Australia and adjoining islands and is the only heron found in Tasmania, although in the wider heron family four species of white egret also are found here, along with bitterns. In Tasmania white-faced herons are sometimes called “blue cranes”, in reference to their grey-blue plumage. Observed close up, a russet tinge to the neck feathers can also be seen but the distinguishing characteristic is the white face which gives them their name.
Away from suburb and paddock, the heron is a supreme angler in its more familiar range, patient but relentless and not much escapes its keen eye and sharp beak. It hunts either by spear-fishing in water or standing over and stabbing its prey on land, as with reptiles, small mammals, a nest of birds in reeds or long grass – or a supply of worms on winery lawn.
After their non-appearance in spring, I kept a watch for herons on my outings out of town and can happily report that their numbers appear to be strong. Just days before I saw the heron hunting at the winery I saw six flying in formation further up the Coal River closer Richmond.
Hopefully, they’ll be back in my suburb when winter turns to spring.