Guide to Britain’s herons, bitterns and cranes

Learn to identify our growing number of heron and bittern species next time you visit a wetland or river with our guide to these stunning and stealthy hunters.

(GERMANY OUT) Graureiher im Prachtkleid (Photo by Maren Wulf/McPhoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Learn more about Britain’s bitterns and herons – the stealthy hunters of our marshes and rivers, in our handy guide which looks at the main species you can see in the UK, plus cousin species.

What is the difference between a bittern, egret and a heron?

Heron
Herons tend to have longer legs than bitterns which are more squat/Credit: Getty

Bitterns, herons and egrets are closely related birds of wetlands and rivers. Herons and egrets tend to be statuesque birds, with long legs for wading into deeper water in search of prey.

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Bitterns are more squat, and hunt by blending into reedbeds and catching small creatures by stealth. All have long, dagger-like bills for spearing prey.

The River Spey near Boat of Garten, Cairngorms
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How to identify each species

Great white egret

Egret In Anasagar Lake In Ajmer, India On 09 December 2019. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The great white egret is a similar size and shape of a grey heron/Credit: Getty

The size and shape of a grey heron but pure white except for black legs and a bright yellow dagger of a beak – easy to spot, even at long distances. Increasing numbers of great white egret are wintering on marshlands and lakes throughout Britain and there have been successful breeding attempts on the Somerset Levels and in eastern England.

Grey heron

(GERMANY OUT) Graureiher im Prachtkleid (Photo by Maren Wulf/McPhoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
The grey heron (Ardea cinerea) has a black tuft of feathers at the back of its head/Credit: Getty

A common and surprisingly big fish hunter found on almost every waterway. While wings and body are grey, the head it white with a black eyebrow and ragged black tassles. Nests in noisy colonies in tall trees. Ponderous but impressive in flight when it emits a loud “fraannk” call. Will hunt on land for rodents and frogs.

Bittern

Great Bittern (Botaurus stellaris) adult walking on cut reed bed, Minsmere RSPB reserve, Suffolk, England, November. (Photo by: Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The bittern (Botaurus stellaris) was extinct in the 1870s but there may be more than 200 breeding pairs in the UK today/Credit: Getty

Beautifully camouflaged fish and frog hunter of reedbeds and rushes. Numbers and range in the UK have increased extraordinarily in recent years though it remains hard to see except on dusk flights to its roosting sites. In spring, its fantastically deep, hooting call reverberates across its wetland habitat.

Little egret

KINROSS, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 10: A little egret catches a fish in a pond at RSPB Loch Leven, part of Loch Leven National Nature Reserve, on November 10, 2018 in Kinross, Scotland. (Photo by Ken Jack - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)
The  little egret (Egretta garzetta) hunts tiny fish relentlessly in the shallows of lakes and marshes/Credit: Getty

Another heron whose numbers and range are sharply on the rise over the past 30 years and it can now be seen anywhere from tiny urban streams to mighty reservoirs and bleak estuaries. Two thirds the size of the great egret, it has a black legs and rapier-like bill. Its plumage is brightly white with long head tassels.

Cattle egret

Cattle egret / buff-backed heron (Bubulcus ibis / Ardea ibis) hunting in wetland. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Cattle egret (Bubulcus ibis) is a very recent addition to the UK’s list of breeding birds – with the first pairs breeding in Somerset in 2008/Credit: Getty

Slightly smaller than the little egret and with a fiery orange crest and chest, this heron is more commonly found around livestock in wetland areas, feeding on creature disturbed by the mammals’ hooves. Still a relatively rare sight in Britain but increasingly common and beginning to breed at several locations.

Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill, Platalea leucorodia, with recently caught fish, Cley Norfolk. (Photo by: David Tipling/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Eurasian spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia) hunts by sweeping its massive but sensitive bill and grasping anything it touches/Credit: Getty

A very large heron like bird that hunts small creatures using its bizarre spatula-like bill to sieve tasty morsels from the water, sweeping its head from side to side. Hence it is a much more moble feeder than the stealthier herons. Its range is spreading north and in the past five years, several pairs have bred successfully in southern England.

What do herons and bitterns eat?

Herons will mostly eat fish, particularly eels, but will eat frogs, voles and ducklings if they can catch them. Bitterns also eat fish but will take small invertebrates, tadpoles, frogs and newts.

Why are we seeing more heron, bittern and egret species in Britain?

In recent years, great white egrets, cattle egrets and spoonbills have all begun nesting in the UK in greater numbers, while populations of little egrets have rocketed. The key reason may be climate change and global warming, which is enabling southern species to find an ecological niche further north than before. Also, the UK has had some major conservation successes in restoring wetlands in Somerset, East Anglia and elsewhere and this has certainly helped bitterns recover from near extinction in the early 20th century.


Some curious heron cousins in the UK

White stork

ANDALUCIA, SPAIN - MARCH 14: A White Stork seen in Andalucia, Spain. PHOTOGRAPH BY Ingo Gerlach / Barcroft Images (Photo credit should read Ingo Gerlach / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
White storks (Ciconia ciconia) nest on chimneys, treetops and specially built platforms – which may be key to their success in the UK/Credit: Getty

A huge bird with a stout orange bill, the white stork is a cousin of the heron and a voracious hunter of frogs and voles in wet meadows and marshes. It appears almost stocky in comparison to the slender herons. Relatively common in northern France and each year a few individuals have drifted over to the UK each year. The White Stork Project has begun a reintroduction on several sites in south-east England with the famous rewilding Knepp Estate reporting several nests this year.

Common crane

Common Crane / Eurasian Crane (Grus grus) flying against blue sky in autumn. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Common crane  (Grus grus) have a haunting bugling call and a complicated mating dance/Credit: Getty
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Although resembling a heron, the common crane is not closely related. Although it shares the long next, bill and legs, it has a major difference. When in the air, it flies with an outstretched neck – herons fly with neck curled towards the body. Common cranes became extinct in the UK in the 19th century but returned naturally to the Norfolk Broads, where a small but expanding population exists. The Great Crane Project has been releasing cranes onto the Somerset Levels in the hope of establishing a permanent population there.