Herons and egrets at the zoo
To rouse the hefty pelicans into action, the keeper releases shoals of goldfish into the moat of their enclosure. The bulky birds enthusiastically pursue their diminutive prey, scooping them up in their expandable bills, which they cast sideways in the shallow water. Visitors at the zoo watch entranced, but they’re not the only observers.
High above the pelicans, half concealed in the canopy of the majestic plane trees, are scores of untidy nests. Here, in the centre of Barcelona, is the core of Europe’s largest urban heronry: an astonishing number of Grey herons—well over a hundred pairs—nest in the zoo’s trees, together with their relatives, Little and Cattle egrets.
In August, the breeding season is winding down, but there are still plenty of opportunists waiting for a chance to snatch some lunch. In their usual hunting grounds by the Llobregat and Besos rivers, these wild birds will flee at the slightest human intrusion. But within the zoo grounds they’ve learnt to relax their habitual wariness, allowing you to watch from up close and compare hunting techniques.
With the pelicans now absorbed in a post-meal preen, herons prowl the moat, looking for surviving goldfish. Sleek and grey, they rely on stealth and snaking necks to spear their catch. Their long legs are adapted for wading through far deeper waters.
Much shorter and more nimble, the Little egrets dart after the fleeing fish with abrupt changes of direction. Outsized yellow feet contrast with fine white plumes, spread into a haze by the breeze—the effect is like wearing wellington boots with a wedding dress.
These beautiful feathers, once highly sought after by milliners as hat decorations, nearly brought the egret to extinction. In August breeding finery is no longer needed and the birds are in moult. Feathers float down along with the plane tree leaves, already turning brown in the heat.
Lucy Brzoska runs nature tours in Barcelona and writes for www.iberianature.com