Spend enough time watching wildlife and you will be guaranteed occasions that surprise, impress and delight you. Just the other day I chanced across one such occasion. Scanning across the marshes I picked out a heron struggling with an unusually large prey item. The bird was distant and the magnification of the binoculars insufficient to resolve what it was that the heron was struggling to swallow. Quickly setting up my telescope I was soon on the bird. Much to my amazement the heron was attempting to swallow a stoat, the rear two-thirds of which were hanging from the bird’s beak.
The stoat was dead, of that there was no question; the russet body and black-tipped tail hung limply, swinging pendulum-like as the heron attempted to reposition its prey. Over the following minutes the heron continued in its efforts to swallow the stoat, throwing its head back and pointing its bill skywards, as if seeking the aid of gravity to push the unfortunate mustelid further down its throat. Finally, after much effort, the last of the stoat slipped out of sight and the great bill closed.
This, however, was not the end of the struggle. The bulge of the stoat could be clearly seen in the throat and the heron again began to throw back its head. Such a large prey item was causing discomfort and the bird still had some way to go to get its meal further down the digestive tract. Moments of continued effort were followed by periods where the bird stood still, only the great bill opening and closing as if the heron was struggling to draw breath. Then, the act of swallowing still unfinished, the bird walked down the bank, into a drain and out of view.
Whether the heron had stumbled across the stoat, already dead, or whether the stoat had wandered unknowingly within range of the heron’s dagger-like beak, was unclear. I suspect the latter but whatever had happened prior to my arrival it was still a remarkable sight. Herons will take larger fish and they regularly take small birds and mammals but this was something that I’ve not seen mentioned in the literature. It was new to me and all the more astonishing for it.