May 2023

The black-headed heron and its interesting diet

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The black-headed heron and its interesting diet

When I think of the regal heron I imagine one at the edge of the water, watching, as it stands motionless before attempting to spear a fish. Herons are not usually found too far from the water, however, the black-headed heron of the Grumeti will hunt for its favourite foods out in the middle of the grasslands. The spear of a bill is a formidable tool and the bird is able to launch it at its unsuspecting food items. Favourite foods of the open grasslands include small rats and mice, large insects such as grass hoppers and locusts, even smaller birds, snakes and lizards!

Out on a drive with our trainee guides, we were lucky enough to stumble across a number of black-headed herons that were hunting the grassland close to Gardenia Waterhole. Some individuals were in flight and returning to rest in the trees surrounding the waterhole when we noticed one with something particularly eye-catching hanging from its bill… A plated lizard! This heron had ambushed one of the larger lizard species and made a meal out of it.

It was at that time of the morning when conditions begin to change and the heat from the sun begins to get hot. The time where you would expect reptiles to be basking in the sun on termite mounds or moving around in search of food. Had this heron noticed this plated lizard emerge from its hole, expose itself, then struck with pinpoint accuracy?

When you watch a heron hunting, you will notice how motionless and silent the bird can be. Its awareness of what is going on around it together with sharp eyes makes it quite the hunting machine. In just a minute or two it had begun to swallow the lizard, head-first.

So, when you next cast eyes upon a heron, know that it is not just fish that they are after but a long list of other prey species that satisfy the hunger of this specialist hunter.

George David Tolchard
By George David Tolchard
Head Guide