The Purple Heron, Ardea purpurea in my humble opinion, is the most shy of all the herons, I have photographed, thus far. For while I had seen these magnificient birds many a time, getting close enough to capture decent images was another story. Finally, a 300mm f/2.8 lens coupled with 2X TC on 5D mark III, gave me the desired focal length of 600mm which allowed me to approach this bird from a distance.
Purple Herons are a widespread resident species, given to occasional bouts of local dispersion. They are shy and solitary hunters who prefer standing motionless in shallow waters, adopting a stand-and-wait hunting strategy, most effectively.
Despite it’s popular moniker, the purple heron possess a chestnut-red head and neck, with striking vertical black stripes, grey shoulders and outer-wings and a rich chestnut stomach and inner-wings. The Spanish name for the purple heron is garza imperial, which translates to ‘Imperial Heron’, perhaps a more apt name for this vibrant species. It’s regal appearance is further enhanced by a beautiful, elongated, golden-ochre beak, proportionally longer than most species under falling under the genus. The slender, almost serpentine neck is gracefully coiled into an ‘S’ shape when in flight. Long shapely toes allow the bird to move with ease and grace amidst floating vegetation.
Although both sexes are similar in appearance, the female is of a tad lighter hue than the male. Juvenile birds are dull, with a beige and brown chest, lacking the neck stripes and extended plumage of the adults.
Preferring to feed during the wee hours of dawn and at dusk, the purple heron has a very varied diet consisting of fish, salamanders (where present), frogs, insects, crustaceans, spiders, molluscs, small birds, mammals and even snakes and lizards. The bird hunts by carefully lying in ambush in the surrounding vegetation, patiently awaiting approaching prey.
Populations breeding in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are migratory, travelling between breeding and wintering grounds, whereas Southern African and Indian populations are non-migratory. The purple heron migrates by day, typically in small groups, although in known to migrate in large groups of 350 to 400 individuals in Turkey. Purple herons often nest alongside other species of heron, such as the grey heron, in groups not exceeding fifty pairs; however, a colony consisting of a thousand breeding pairs has also been recorded. Between two and eight eggs are laid per clutch, with an incubation period of 25 to 27 days. The fledglings are able to fend for themselves at around 45 to 50 days.
The purple heron is common throughout Southern and Eastern Europe, Central and Southern Asia, and Africa.
Four subspecies are recognised:
- Ardea purpurea purpurea’s breeding range extends from eastern and southern Europe, east towards Iran and as far south as South Africa.
- Ardea purpurea bournei breeds on Santiago Island in the Cape Verde Islands.
- Ardea purpurea madagascariensis occurs in Madagascar and the Seychelles.
- The breeding range of Ardea purpurea manilensis stretches from south of the Himalayas, through India to Sri Lanka, and east to China, Russia, and south-east Asia.