Living so close to the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Hula Valley, I get plenty of opportunities to observe herons. I regularly see grey herons, squacco herons, night herons and purple herons, and that’s not to mention the herrings I see in the local delicatessens (schmaltz, chopped, fried and pickled).
Grey herons are large, long-legged, long-necked, graceful birds, with bodies and wings, unsurprisingly primarily grey. Their wingspan is one-and-a-half to two metres and they stand a metre (3ft 3in) tall at the water’s edge or in the shallows of rivers or lakes. They are constantly on the lookout for a fish – well, after all, they are piscivores. They retract their necks in an ‘S’ shape when they fly and sometimes when in the water too, as they peer at a potential catch.
Squacco herons, are much squatter and stockier than grey herons, and their height/length, wingspan and weight are correspondingly about half as much as the grey. Their colouring is rather lovely with a buff-brown back, but in flight they look very whitish.
Black-capped night herons, are similar in size and shape to the squacco, but are black, grey and white, rather than the squacco’s brown and white. Most birds are diurnal (out and about during the day) but, as their name implies, night herons are birds of the night, preferring to do their hunting at dusk and dawn. Some of the birds I see seem to be insomniacs and do their hunting during the day too.
The purple heron, is my hero/heroine heron. I recently discovered that the great blue heron (not a bird that we see in Israel – it lives in America) is fondly known in some parts, as a gilly whomper. I have tried hard to get an understanding of the term gilly whomper, but Google doesn’t give much help. I know that a gilly is a Scottish fisherman’s assistant or hunter’s assistant, and I believe that to whomp, is to hit or slap. So, I have an image in my mind, of the great blue heron creeping up behind the fisherman’s assistant, slapping him on the back and pushing him into the river, so that the heron can take the fish he’s just caught. Can any American readers of this blog, or other readers, give me a better reason for this wonderful name? Hereon, I shall think of the purple heron as a purple gilly whomper. It’s similar in appearance and size to the grey heron, though just a little smaller. Rather than the grey plumage it has a splendid deep purple appearance.
The origin of the English word heron is the French hairon but Shakespeare preferred the term handsaw, as Hamlet said “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
Keep your hair on, I think it’s fair to say that, whatever the direction of the wind, I know a hawk from a purple gilly whomper!