In 2011 there were sixteen nests in the heronry. This year, the winter of 2017 having been so hard, there are only three.
The male birds arrive at the end of December to eye up the old nests and work out what needs fixing. The heronry is an old one, and so the nesting platforms are huge untidy affairs of branches and twigs fetched up from the surrounding trees. Once the females have arrived, courtship begins. It's a surprisingly graceful ceremony of neck stretching and beak snapping, and once it's over, the birds begin to rebuild their nest. Repairing the nest is a leisurely process - herons do everything slowly - the male flying in with building material, the female reweaving the platform.
Herons begin incubating their eggs as early as February, and I know when incubation has begun, because I can see the females hunkered down on the nest platforms. The males fly in with food, their long necks outstretched and stuffed full of frogs and fish. The birds remind me of planes coming in to land. They're so ungainly I wonder if they're going to make it, but each heron carefully lines himself up and taxis slowly into his allotted docking space, within easy reach of his mate's hungry beak.
The parent birds are so large I don't need binoculars to see them, and even the chicks are big enough to be seen peering over the edge of the nest. Heron chicks are scrawny and scruffy with the most fantastical punk hair-dos, spiky quiffs of off-white feathers.
I wonder what its' like to be a chick growing up in a year with so few nests. Is the heronry uncannily quiet? Is the room service better than usual, or has the hard winter killed off the food supply too? Are the few remaining parents unduly anxious? Is three nests enough, I wonder. Will the heronry survive?