One of the most impressive and unforeseen bird observations in Europe over the last few years occurred in June, in Greece. A Black Heron Egretta ardesiaca was seen in Valti, north of Acheloos estuary, at the National Park of Mesologgi – Aitolikos Lagoons. It is the first ever sighting of this species in mainland Europe, as it lives solely in Sub-Saharan Africa!
The discovery happened on the 3rd of June when two members of the Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS) were going on a “routine” birdwatching trip to Mesologgi – Aitolikos Lagoon. At some point during this routine visit, they saw a black heron flying with the White Egrets Egretta garzetta. At first they thought it was a Western Reef Heron – a dark heron that reaches Egypt and has sometimes been seen in southern Europe. However, to everyone’s surprise, the bird began to feed and revealed something truly amazing!
Instead of the usual “walk and nail” technique that other herons use to feed, in one sudden move, the Black Heron brought its wings forward, covering its head and neck! From far, it looked like a round, black umbrella on the water’s surface! After a few seconds, it would go back to its normal posture, walk a few metres, and… umbrella!1 HOS members Nikos Boukas and Thodoros Kominos couldn’t believe their luck with this discovery! The Black Heron’s feeding behavior is something they had seen in African Wildlife Documentaries since only one species in the world feeds in this manner!
So, a Black Heron, not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but in Valti! The news travelled extremely quickly, and in less than a few days more than 20 birdwatchers came to the area to see this new species for Greece. Several foreign birdwatchers have also travelled from other countries in Europe in order to see the Black Heron! The Black Heron seems to have settled in with a colony of White Herons and travels with them to feed daily.
“It’s always a great pleasure when we see new species in Greece. In 2012, we have already had two new discoveries: a Hooded Wheatear Oenanthe monacha in Nestos in May, and now the Black Heron, a truly impressive discovery for birdwatchers throughout Europe”, said Nikos Probonas, Secretary of the Hellenic Rarities Committee (HRC).
Apart from the excitement that accompanies the sighting of a new species, birdwatchers are impressed by the unique manner in which this species feeds. There are various theories regarding the spectacular “umbrella”: some claim that in creating a shadow, the Black Heron can spot the smaller fish in the water. Others claim that the shadow created actually attracts the fish who think they will find a haven under the umbrella.
However, the question that remains are how did the Black Heron find itself in Greece since, even in Africa, it doesnot move a lot. Kostas Papaconstantinou, member of the HRC proposes the following explanation: the Black Heron most probably met a group of Little Egrets who were wintering in Africa and followed them when they returned to Europe. Local negative environmental standards, such as drought might also have affected the Black Heron’s choice. In reality, who really knows?”
1A short video of the heron looking for food can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRJArmhR_MQ&feature=youtu.be