There was great excitement on the Simbithi birding WhatsApp group when photos were posted of Purple Herons nesting among the reeds on the small island close to the bank of Fish Eagle Dam, adjacent to the Fish Eagle Community Centre.
Purple Herons (Ardea purpurea) always nest over water usually deep inside beds of Phragmites or Bull Rush reed beds. The nest is literally a platform of reeds or rushes in the reedbed or in a tree lined with reed leaves and small water plants. Purple Herons are monogamous, and the male chooses where the nest will be built.
Although the nest on Fish Eagle Dam appears to be a solitary nest, Purple Herons often nest in small colonies of other purple herons or amongst other heron species in mixed species heronries. Between 2 and 5 beautiful blue, hen-sized eggs are laid and hatch after 25-27 days. Competition for food between the chicks is intense, sometimes resulting in the death of the weakest chick.
As with other herons, both males and females help to build the nest, take turns in incubating the eggs and assist with caring for and feeding the nestlings. The parent birds defend their nest against intruders by performing a variety of displays and even attacking any intruder by stabbing them with their sharp bills.
Young herons stay in the nest for up to 35 days but when hungry do stray into the reeds well before they can fly. When a parent bird arrives with food the wandering chicks scramble back to the nest, just like naughty toddlers. After a month or so they are ready to leave the nest but are only fully independent at approximately 55-65 days of age.
Apart from when breeding or roosting, purple herons are solitary birds. The are far shyer than the grey heron and although their hunting methods are similar to other large herons, you are unlikely to see them in open water. They prefer to remain at the edges of dams where there is good vegetation. Their attractive plumage is a mix of browns, chestnut and greys and serves as a good camouflage against a background of reeds. Whomever named them purple had a good imagination or was colour blind! If disturbed, this bird sits very still with its long beak pointing upward, making it surprisingly difficult to spot. The diet of purple herons includes fish, frogs, small reptiles, insects, occasionally small aquatic mammals and even young birds.
The Simbithi Birding WhatsApp group provides a daily dose of the wonderful birds on our beautiful estate and has revealed the amazing talents of many of our Simbithi photographers! Our Environmental and Marketing Departments are busy compiling a book of the birds of Simbithi so, as they say, watch this space!