Grey herons are one of my favourite bird species. They are handsome birds of superb elegance and are extraordinarily patient hunters. I get all nostalgic when I see a grey heron. They take me back to my childhood – summer days spent fishing with my father at our lake. From January through to April, the herons are resplendent in their best breeding plumage, with long dark head plumes and a deep orange/red, dagger-like bill.
Herons are exceptionally wary birds and in the true wild, they are tremendously cautious and vigilant. It takes a great deal of skill and patience to creep up on a grey heron and it often requires a hide to capture close-up images. The one exception is when grey herons are breeding.
Take Advantage of Heronries
Grey herons congregate at large nesting sites, in the tallest trees, close to a canal, river or lake. These ‘heronries’ are great locations for photography as the birds are normally preoccupied with the necessities of reproduction. They are active all day: flying back and forth, courting mates, collecting nest-building material, and hunting.
There will be a greater concentration of herons here than anywhere else during the year. Instead of trying to photograph a solitary bird, you’ll be able to photograph dozens of breeding pairs.
Get yourself to a park heronry
The task of photographing herons is even easier if you visit a park heronry which is busy with people. The two most popular sites in the South East are Regent’s Park in London, and Verulamium Park in St. Albans. At both locations, herons nest on man-made islands in the middle of large ponds, but are still within easy reach of a modest telephoto lens.
In Regent’s Park, the task of photographing grey herons is particularly easy. Here, the herons are accustomed to being fed by people, just like domestic wildfowl. When I first visited, I was astounded by how close the herons were to people, given their reputation for wariness. A few local residents even feed the herons directly by hand with fish. When this happens, you can witness a rarely seen spectacle – a human surrounded by a dozen adult and immature grey herons. It’s really bizarre!
Timing your visit for the best light
To capture my grey heron images, I visit both Verulamium Park and Regent’s Park for a couple of days during January, February and March. I prefer photographing herons in that low-angled winter sunshine. I haven’t managed to time my sessions for snow yet, but that would be very cool. Timing-wise, I always ensure that I arrive early to enjoy the best of the crisp, bright mornings and before the public masses arrive. Grey herons are very active during this time.
At Regent’s Park, they hunt around the edge of the Boating Lake and fly in from local gardens having raided ornamental ponds. Download the Regent’s Park map.
At Verulamium Park, they’re fishing from the islands and fly in from local fields and meadows where they hunt for invertebrates and amphibians. Download the Verulamium Park guide.
Photographing at heronries
With a little patience and 100-400mm lens at the ready, I can capture full frame images of these large birds in flight as they sweep passed. Grey herons are quite slow in the air, giving you more time to prepare. With enough time, a DSLR should easily lock on to a heron in flight.
I used to only take flight shots in bright or sunny conditions where I had a fast enough shutter speed to freeze-frame the action. With our weather, this isn’t exactly practical. So, like with other subjects, I use motion blur to capture action images in poor light – using the naturally slower shutter speed to my advantage.
On sunny days with clear blue skies, the light is more or less constant so I set my exposure manually. Starting in Aperture Priority (Av) mode, I shoot a series of test exposures on f/5.6 – f/8 and review the histogram. Then I switch to Manual mode and enter the best exposure setting and periodically review the images if I sense the light levels changing. With the exposure set manually, you can shoot away without worrying about compensating for different backgrounds – just as long as the subject itself doesn’t pass though any shadows.
With the exposure set, prepare yourself to react quickly to any bird taking off or coming into land. Herons are great subjects to practice flight photography. They are very large and slow to take flight. For a detailed guide to help your ‘bird in flight’ technique, be sure to read/bookmark my “6-Step Guide To Photographing Birds In Flight.”
Grey herons against a blue sky are great, but watch out for distracting twigs and branches. Unless they are in context, such as a heron returning to its nest with twigs, they can ruin the shot. Photographing herons as they fly in front of golden willow trees or reed beds can produce vibrant images with a great sense of habitat and environment.
Nesting herons are great for behavioural images, although it can be difficult to get a truly great shot. The herons are normally obscured by twigs and branches and the elevated angle is unappealing. If you find a clear view, it is worth exploring as many possibilities as you can.
There is always great interaction when herons meet, so wait for the adult herons to return to the nest with building material or food for their young. Herons often call to each other as they come to land on the nest. I am confident this is to ensure they have the right nest, so use the call as an indicator to where the heron is going to land. Then be prepared to track and pan with the herons as they depart the nest and fly away.
Photographing grey herons at Regent’s Park
Regent’s Park is one of the best places in the UK to observe and photograph herons. However, if you are a professional photographer you will need a permit that costs over £280+VAT per 4 hours. If Royal Park staff or the Royal Parks Constabulary observe you with a big lens and tripod, they WILL stop you and ask your purpose. No permit? Then you’ll receive an official caution. However, for an amateur, it is simply heron heaven.
Once I received my permit, I entered the park armed with a bag of whitebait and looked for a group of herons. I arrived early as this is a very busy location with joggers, dog walkers, day-trippers, and families. In spite of the hustle and bustle, the herons did not seem bothered in the slightest. I quickly found several herons standing underneath a willow collecting nest material.
Always avoid walking directly at the herons as they will usually take flight. Instead, I tempted them towards me with an offering of fish. I approached the water’s edge, making sure I looked out to a clear background and threw out a few silvery fish. The bright flash of silver was enough to grab their attention and one-by-one they flew over to queue for a handout.
It is just soooo odd having these massive birds fly down to you and wait in turn for a little fishy. Every so often, they returned to their nests to feed partners or young and promptly returned. I moved around, so I could change the background. The herons were unfazed by my movements, so rather than wait for a heron to land in the ‘right spot’, I just slowly moved around those that were already there. To get the intimate eye-level POV, I sat down on the grass, shooting wide-open to diffuse the background.
Within a couple of hours, I had a sack-load of great images including: close-up portraits, full-frame profiles, full-body, take-off, flight, nesting, and landing shots. I just took the one small bag. I didn’t want to tread on the toes of the local regulars that go there every day. It was enough.
A rather smelly drawback was handling the fish. My solution was to set my camera on a tripod. I could then frame the shot with just one hand. With the other hand in a disposable glove, I tossed out the whitebait to the herons. After this rather fishy session, I gave the kit a thorough cleansing with alcohol wipes. If you know any willing volunteers that don’t mind handling fish, it pays to take somebody to feed the herons. Even if it’s just to keep your gear from becoming encrusted with fish slime! Yuk!