On a date with nature in St Albans

By | Category: Travel destinations

I’ve always thought herons have a distinctly prehistoric look about them, and watching a pair fly overhead as I cycle into St Albans I’m reminded of the pterodactyls that soar past in the closing scenes of Jurassic Park.
Even as dots in the sky, it’s obvious that herons are impressively big and commanding birds. I’m about to find out just how big they are, because I’ve got a ‘Date With Nature’ in Verulamium Park, St Albans courtesy of the RSPB. While it doesn’t quite offer a Jurassic experience, it’s about as close as you’d wish to get in this pretty Hertfordshire town.
The ‘Date with Nature’ is an RSPB project, designed to give visitors to the park a close-up look at a heronry; a group of nesting herons in a small island of trees on the lake.
Herons are a blessing for the amateur nature-watcher like me because they’re instantly recognisable, especially in the air when their slow wing-beats and languorously trailing legs give away their identity easily.
There are eight pairs nesting here this year and, peering through the telescopes that are expertly trained on the nests, it’s possible to see them in some detail; their huge, gangly bodies perched improbably in the frail branches at the top of the trees.
I fear that they might crash to the ground at any minute. “Don’t worry, they look too big for the branches but they’re quite stable” says Barry, an RSPB assistant who spends his days here meeting visitors and answering questions about the birds. He has admirable enthusiasm and flits between me and a group of Mums and toddlers, who originally turned up merely to feed the ducks but are now absorbed in Barry’s tales of the heronry.
”We had a great view of an egg from our nest-cam this morning” says Barry “but the female seems to be covering it up completely at the moment”. I take a look at the TV screen in the RSPB’s trailer and see said female hunkering down over her egg. I can hardly blame her, it’s a perishing cold day, but heron’s are one of the UK’s earliest breeding birds so they know exactly what they’re in for and are prepared for the cold, damp weather that February and March brings.
On my visit there is just one egg here, but Barry tells me they expect more to be laid in the coming days and weeks, with hatching taking place later this month. From then on it will be a busy and active time as the adults fly backwards and forwards between the nests and nearby feeding sites hunting fish, frogs and small mammals to feed their young.
There are other birds on the lake to look out for too – tufted ducks, coots, cormorants and geese among them – and Barry and his team keep a list of the latest sightings for visitors to look out for.
The herons are almost hypnotic to watch, especially in flight, but in time the need for a warming drink overcomes my fascination and I’m lured away to the park’s cafe. However, I pledge to come back in a few weeks and hope that when I do I’ll be in time to see some leggy, beaky youngsters taking their first jerky flights.

How to get here: I cycled along The Alban Way, on Route 61 of the National Cycle Network. You can find the route at www.sustrans.org.uk
The park is just across the road from St Albans Abbey railway station, or by car St Albans is easily accessed from the M1 and M25.
When to come: The RSPB viewing point is completely free of charge and open for visitors from Wednesdays to Sundays until 28 April. The eggs are expected to hatch in late March and the young should fledge in April.
Find out more: Visit www.rspb.org.uk/datewithnature to find out more about the heronry at St Albans or to find a different ‘Date with Nature’ project. Over the summer months they will be all across the UK providing a chance to see ospreys, red kites, peregrines, puffins, seals and more.

Images © Ben Andrew

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