Bird activities viewed

Country Sights and Sounds
Bird activities viewed

John Shelley

The lake is as high as I ever saw it, thanks to the rain that spills continually from the heavens. A break came in the cloud today, but away on the Partry Hills a darkened cloak has come to vanish the peaks. Tonight it will seep from high ground, creeping into the valleys to add its load to the already saturated land.
Lough Carra has become a northerly wing of Lough Mask; the river that joins the two can still be identified, but mostly as a moving stream through an expanded, shallow lake. Here is a place where swans come to die. Why there I do not know. But every spring, when the floods recede from the fields, there will be the remains of one or two mute swans among the rushes.
At present the swans are elsewhere, in more sheltered locations. These biggest of our birds don’t like to be exposed to too much wind, for their very size makes them a natural sailboat, to be driven where they do not wish to go. We have two pairs close to home, each determinedly preserving their own situation on the lake. Swans like to stay with the same partner for life and are very territorial, so these, despite their calm and placid appearance, have regular face-offs along an invisible boundary.
They know how far they can travel without incurring the wrath of the other birds, and for the most part they are graciously accepting of this unwritten law. But now and again one or other pair will drift nonchalantly into the territory of the other. Then follows a brief display of hostility, with much hissing and raising of wings, and occasionally a swift and violent battle that is invariably won before it has even started. The result is always the same, with the offending birds driven back into their own swim. When the days start to lengthen hostilities will intensify, as the birds prepare for the nesting season.
A short distance away the rooks have been laughing loudly as they play on the storm-wind, riding the eddies, tumbling and chasing with exuberance. I laughed too, at the very sight of them, and settled to watch them, snatching a few minutes from a day over-eager to consume itself. Who cannot love their careless clumsiness and clown-like appearance? Who is not warmed by the communal voice of the rookery, or cheered by the optimistic gleam ever in that bright, black eye?
When I saw the rooks again they were busy at their treetop nests in the rookery, inspecting the damage done by the ongoing storms. Beneath the trees now lie two or three of these sturdy mud and stick constructions that were less firmly positioned than the majority. They will be replaced, and others repaired as the need may be.
It is rare to see rook’s nests left abandoned and empty in the spring, despite the fact that many of those which built these same nests will have perished since the last breeding season. We can only surmise that some of those embarking on their first adventure in parenthood are happy with a second-hand house. Other first-home-owners engaging in a self-build project will need to make many attempts before becoming accomplished builders and mastering the art of weaving sticks and using mud for cement.
The Irish rook population is swelled considerably with winter migrants, mostly from mainland Europe, but also some from as far afield as Russia and the southern Baltic coast. It is hard to work out exactly what is happening. There is no doubt that birds are currently gathered from many different locations, for there are far too many at our local rookery and none at all at some other nesting sites. Yet all appear to have a great interest in the condition of the local nests. The entire multitude have been gathered together in the trees, chattering excitedly among themselves with no sign of animosity, looking as though they are part of one big family.
So where are the immigrant birds? Have they joined up with the locals? It would be nice to think that the complex social structure which colonies of rooks display would cross not just local but even national borders. They could teach the swans a thing or two.