A guide to spotting herons

A guide to spotting herons

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Herons are long-legged freshwater and coastal birds that can typically be found in wetlands.

They are in the Ardeidae family and 64 different species are known to exist - although some are called egrets or bitterns depending on a number of factors. The bird was first described in Britain.

While you are unlikely to see many herons in your back garden, there are a number of characteristics to look out for to make sure you can identify them correctly when you're out and about.   

Common characteristics

For a start, although herons vary in size dramatically, from the very small to the large, one thing they all do have in common is long legs and toes in proportion to the size of their bodies. This is particularly useful for wading on soft mud or standing on floating vegetation. Their wings are broad and rounded, they are markedly bowed in flight, have long or very long necks and dagger-shaped bills.

Eating habits

They eat various types of food, including fish, crabs, frogs, small mammals and even young birds.Unlike many other birds, Herons actually catch their prey in their bill, instead of spearing it.


While there are differences between species, herons are typically monogamous and mostly colonial. For example, Grey Herons are known for gathering in large numbers in order to breed and raise their young, while nesting is seasonal in temperate species. Many species nest in trees, often in mixed colonies, while bitterns are much more secretive and nest in dense reeds.

Different species

Bittern - This is a thickset heron that has a bright, pale, buffy-brown plumage that is covered with dark streaks and bars. This bird is very hard to see as it moves almost silently through the reeds at the edge of the water. It is a Red List species - meaning it is one of the most threatened in the UK. These birds can be seen at wetlands with large reedbeds, especially RSPB reserves at Minsmere (Suffolk) and Leighton Moss (Lancashire).

Grey Heron - Their long legs, long beak and grey, black and white feathering makes them hard not to notice. They have two standing positions - either with their neck stretched out looking for food, or hunched down with their neck bent over their chest. This species can be seen at almost any kind of water - including garden ponds, lakes, rivers and even on estuaries.

Little Egret - This small white heron features white plumage on its crest, back and chest, has black legs and bill, and yellow feet. It was a rare visitor to the UK until 1989, and first bred here in 1996, with the bird now at home in numerous south coast sites. On the Amber List as a rare breeding species, it is most common on the south and east coasts of England and in Wales.

Cattle Egret - An increasingly regular visitor to the UK, this bird is actually smaller than the Little Egret. Known to stay close to livestock so they can grab insects and worms after they have been disturbed by the animals' hooves, they have yellow or greyish legs and a yellow beak. These birds are most likely to be seen in the south of England and Wales.

Great White Egret - Like a much larger Little Egret, they are similar in size to the Grey Heron. They have black feet, a yellow beak and a different fishing technique to the grey heron. Although still quite rare, they can be seen in most parts of the UK, with south-east England and East Anglia the most common.