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NATURE Bustling springtime frenzy

Outdoor Living
Dob dipping, zig-zagging and stick picking


Country sights and sounds
John Shelley


My walk tonight was quiet, initially so, at least. I was out at dusk to watch the starlings come to roost and to count the waterfowl as they gathered in the bay. Together with the usual complement of mallard, moorhen and coot, eight little grebes, or dabchicks, as we affectionately know them, came to feed in open water.
They stayed in a loose group to amuse me, dipping beneath the surface one after another until none at all was visible, then reappearing as if by magic; they were there, I look away briefly and then back – they are gone. Are my eyes playing tricks? Not at all, for this is what little grebes do with their time, diving to take items of food many feet deep before bobbing to the top as surely as would little corks.
Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton noted this behaviour in his epic topographical work Poly-Olbian: ‘the diving dobchick here among the rest you see / Now up, now down again, that hard it is to prove / whether under water most it liveth, or above.’ It most certainly lives above, although when feeding hard this little diver can be submerged for longer and more frequent periods of time than it spends on the surface. Drayton called it ‘dobchick’. To us it is dabchick or dobber, and elsewhere, dabber, dapper, doucker.
Another name, though from where I cannot say, is ‘arsefoot’, this presumably earned by the bird’s cumbersome, stumbling gait when on land. This is a water bird, through and through, built perfectly for its proper element.
In another week or two this avian octet will become a duo as nesting time approaches. Only two will remain here when the others disperse. The pair that stay will build a floating raft of broken reeds, the top fashioned into a shallow depression which will hold the eggs. Then the colourful dabchick and his mate will be even more difficult to approach. One hint of danger and the two will be gone. When they reappear it will be as a floating stick, lying prostrate on the water with heads stretched before them, all watchful eye and ready limb.
But such wonders are for April and May; for now we have the excitement of March to deal with.
‘In like a lion, out like a lamb’ says the weatherman of this month. There was nothing lion-like about the way March began her four-and-a-half-week rule. Even in the first week we took very pleasant walks in bright sunshine, with the express purpose of finding Mad March Hares. We followed zig-zag paths that converged upon gateways and found severe damage to the bark around the base of young beech trees – sure signs that hares are about in abundance, yet their madness must have taken them elsewhere, for we saw none.
There were butterflies, small tortoiseshell and yellow brimstone, both newly out of hibernation, and rooks in the rookery, peering into storm-battered nests and effecting repairs with new-gathered sticks. All are happy in the sun, the butterflies to have warmth and an uplifting breeze, the rooks to have the company of their congregation, and I to have it all.
A man and his neighbour passed close by. ‘Are ye going to shoot the crows?’ one asked.
‘I might,’ conceded his friend. They moved on. I wanted to tell them – ‘Those aren’t crows, they’re rooks, and every one the farmer’s friend.’
It was no use. I had tried before. ‘Aah,’ the landlord had said, with a slow and understanding nod, allowing me to go along my way gladdened, before setting about that same work when nobody was around.
But aren’t those rooks funny? One allows his gaze to fall upon a certain stick. His head turns to the left, then to the right. ‘That surely is a fine piece of wood,’ he says to himself as he drops to the ground and strides across to where it lies. He tries to pick it up. It is too long, ridiculously so. He turns it, twists it, pulls it about and makes many attempts to take it to his home, but it remains unmanageable. It is now his sole desire to possess this one thing.
He worries at it, pecking and biting with his powerful beak until finally, after a good deal of work, it falls into two parts. It no longer has the same appeal. Off he strides to find another among the thousands. It has to be the right  one.
And then he is back at his branch to laugh at us looking for the hare and the dobber, which he sees every day.