Birds in the Big Freeze

The large lake at the medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre has completely frozen over, as temperatures here have plummeted to -10 degrees C, and so I take an early morning walk, imagining what it’s like to live in Siberia. As I take the photo, my hands already start to tingle with the cold; too long framing the shot and they start hurting. But what about the birds who live by the lake, like the blue heron who you might be able to spot in these photos? How are they coping with the cold?

Here, the heron finds a sunny vantage point, though there’s not much fishing to be had.

Well, I think life is tough right now for our feathered friends. Take a look at these little black balls with a dusting of frost. These are poor little coots, all huddled together in a small patch of water, heads tucked deeply in, together with a couple of Egyptian geese. Brrrr…

I have never seen so many ducks gathered by one small puddle of water.

As I was wandering around, I passed a man walking his dog, who greeted me and remarked how the place had become féerique, which means fairy-like, or magical, in French. It was indeed quite special, something I could appreciate when I wasn’t slipping all over the icy path (they don’t treat the paths in this reserve).

Slipping off this path would mean sliding down the steep bank and onto the solid surface of the lake. Ice skating, anyone?

The birds out of the water looked somewhat more comfortable, like this cormorant looking out onto the lake from a treetop.

The robin had puffed out his feathers, and was staying in the sun.

At the priory, the central heating was on, and at the stables a dung heap was steaming away. Warmth! Nobody was sitting out on the benches though. Cold! I was starting to feel it, and at a brisk pace, made my way back, wondering how cold the birds must feel.

On the boardwalk

“Under the boardwalk”, as the song goes. But can you spot anyone on the boardwalk?

It’s an Egyptian Goose, perhaps a little surprised – it could be the visual effect of the brown circle around his eyes, or it could be genuine astonishment at the snow, of which there is very little in Egypt! Egyptian Geese are two a penny here – we have got used to them, and apparently they have got used to the weather.

Then we came across another exotic visitor, which I have seen along the banks of the Nile, but never before in Belgium. It’s an egret. What’s the difference between a heron and an egret? Nobody is sure, it seems. The name egret comes from the French Aigrette, which means ‘silver heron’ and also ‘brush’. Though snowy white rather than silver is more accurate.

Their feathers were highly prized by European and American hat-makers in the 19th century, which sadly meant these beautiful birds were killed in large numbers. Senselessly cruel as this seems, we still kill animals for fashion – the Covid-19 outbreaks in mink farms in the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere recently highlighted the scale of mink farming in Europe. This article from Politico makes a solid case for banning mink farming in Europe, and I can’t imagine why that hasn’t happened yet.

A world away from such horrors, the snow draped everything with a gentle frosty coating.

Everything was quiet and still. Even the ducks dived quietly, and the Canada goose (more used to snow, this one) glided gently away.

The medieval priory of Rouge Cloitre in the background. Lakes were stocked with fish for the monks.

The Debonaire Great Blue Heron

It was a glorious afternoon at the forest lakes by Rouge Cloitre (the Augustinian Priory of Red Cloister, on the outskirts of Brussels). My friend the heron is often there, standing contemplative by the edge of the lake. On this day, he was sporting a nice spikey quiff, giving him a rather debonaire look.

He had positioned himself on a fallen branch, and had been preening himself. Those fluffy feathers at the very tip of his beak give it away.

This is his rather special home, a medieval priory nestled in the woods, surrounded by lakes. Like the medieval monks who once lived here, the heron is rather found of a spot of fishing, as well as some quiet contemplation of course.

The heron at Red Cloister

Red Cloister (Rouge Cloitre, Rood-Klooster), an Augustinian Priory founded in the Middle Ages, lies on the edge of the Sonian forest and the south-easterly neighbourhoods of Brussels. Founded in 1367, it was apparently one of the most prestigious in the Spanish Netherlands, and among other notables the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V stayed here. More importantly for my purposes, the lakes all around are full of fish and waterfowl, and today in the sparkling sunshine the Great Blue Heron was out, patiently stalking his prey in the reeds edging one of the lakes.

The combination of sunshine, water and a light breeze made everything feel very alive, in a way you don’t expect of the last week of November. New life is already in the making, as the tree buds reveal, highlighted against the water in the image below.

The sounds of the reeds and grasses rustling in the wind is very soothing, despite the background buzz of the nearby motorway. Is one ever very far from a road these days?

The heron was successful in his fishing expedition, and I watched him gobble up his snack (or did he watch me watching him?). Sadly this gastronomic moment was not caught on camera, as my battery had died by then. There’s always next time though…