Guide to Britain’s heron’s bitterns and cranes identify what they eat and where to see

Our guide to the stunning

and stealthy hunters will help you identify the growing number of bittern and heron species that are now present in a river or wetland. The UK is home to many herons. They can be seen perched on the banks of rivers and lakes,

Hunting fish in marshes and wetlands, and even flying overhead. A heron may be seen fishing in your backyard pond. There are many other bird species that look like these iconic British landscape icons, such as spoonbills and bitterns.

Find out more about Britain’s bitterns (egrets), herons, and cranes. They are the stealthy hunters of our marshes. Our handy guide includes information on the main species and their cousins. Herons have longer legs than bitterns which tend to be shorter. Credit:

What is the difference between a bittern, egret, and a heron

Egrets, bitterns, and herons are all closely related birds of rivers and wetlands. Herons and egrets are usually statuesque birds with long legs that allow them to wade into deeper waters in search of prey.ADVERTISEMENT Minute, 9 SecondsVolume 0%00:0001/09

Bitterns are smaller and more agile and can blend into reedbeds to catch small animals by stealth. All of them have long, dagger-like bills that can be used to spear prey. Texas Birds

How to identify cranes, egrets, herons, and bitterns

The great white egret has a similar shape and size to a grey heron/Credit: Getty is the same size as a grey heron, but it is pure white with only black legs. There are increasing numbers of great white and sand egrets wintering on lakes and marshlands throughout Britain. Successful breeding efforts have also been made on the Somerset Levels in eastern England.

Grey heron

The back of the grey heron (Ardea cinerea), has a black tuft at its head. Credit: GettyThis fish hunter is a common one and can be found in almost all waterways. Although the wings and body of this fish hunter are gray, their head is white with a black eyebrow. They nest in large colonies high up in tall trees. It is ponderous, but it can fly quite well when it makes a loud “frank!” call. It will hunt rodents and frogs on the ground.


Botaurus stellaris, the bittern, was extinct in the 1870s. However, there are likely to be more than 200 breeding pairs today in the UK. Credit: GettyBeautifully camouflaged fish, frog hunter of rushes and reedbeds. Although its numbers and range have increased dramatically in the UK in recent years, it is still difficult to see except on dusk flights to its roosting areas.

 Its hooting sound, which is extremely deep and powerful, reverberates throughout its habitat in the wetland.

Little egret

The little egret, Egretta garzetta, hunts small fish in the shallows and marshes. Credit: GettyAnother heron, whose range and numbers have been steadily increasing over the last 30 years. It can be seen everywhere from small urban streams to large reservoirs and dark estuaries. It is about a third the size of the great egret and has black legs and a rapier-like bill. Its plumage is brightly colored with long head tassels.

Cattle egret

The Cattle egret (Bubulcus Ibis) is a relatively new addition to the UK’s breeding bird list. In fact, the first breeding pairs were established in Somerset in 2008. Credit: GettyThis heron is slightly smaller than the little egret, and has a fiery orange chest and crest.E4354 It feeds on animals that have been disturbed by the hooves of mammals. Although still a rare sight in Britain, they are becoming more common and starting to breed at a variety of locations.


Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea Leucorodia) hunts by moving its large, sensitive bill around and grasping everything it touches. Credit: GettyThis large, heron-like bird hunts small animals using its strange spatula-like bill. It uses its long neck to scoop up tasty morsels of water and sweep its head from side to side. It is much easier to feed than stealthier herons. Its range is expanding north, and several pairs have successfully bred in southern England in the last five years.

What do herons and bitterns eat

While herons prefer to eat fish, especially eels and other small animals, they will also eat frogs and voles as well as ducklings, if they are able to catch them. Bitterns will also eat fish, but will also take small invertebrates such as tadpoles, newts, and frogs. Common frogs are just one of the many creatures that make up the heron’s diet. Credit: Getty Getty

Are we seeing more heron, bitter, and egret species in Britain

Spoonbills, cattle, and great white egrets all began nesting in Britain in greater numbers in recent years. However, the population of little egrets has exploded. Climate change and global warming may be the key to this trend

This allows southern species to seek out an ecological niche farther north than ever before. The UK has also had major conservation successes in restoring wetlands to East Anglia, Somerset, and other parts of the UK, which has helped bitterns recover from their near extinction in the early 20th century.

heron cousins in the UK

White storks (Ciconia Ciconia) nest on chimneys, treetops, and specially constructed platforms. This may be key to their success here in the UK/Credit GettyThe white stork, a large bird with an orange bill and stout body is a cousin to the heron. It is also a voracious hunter of frogs and other insects in marshes and wet meadows. 

The white stork is almost as tall as the slimmer herons. It is relatively common in northern France, and a few individuals migrate to the UK every year. The White Stork Project began a reintroduction at several sites in southeast England, with the famed rewilding Knepp Estate reporting many nests this year.

Common crane

Common cranes (Grus Grus) have a haunting call and complex mating dance. Credit: Getty common crane, although it looks a lot like a heron’s, isn’t very related. It shares the same legs, bill, and long next as the heron, but there is a significant difference. It flies in the air with its neck outstretched. Herons fly with their neck curled towards the bodies. 

The UK lost the common cranes in the 19th century, but they returned to the Norfolk Broads where there is a small but growing population. In the hopes of creating a permanent population, the Great Crane Project has released cranes onto Somerset Levels.

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