Check out the grebe

Country Sights and Sounds
Windswept bog

Check out the grebe

John Shelley


THE sun shone again today, but with little enthusiasm. For a few moments it grew warm in the lee of the trees, and I would have found a stone where I might sit and bask if it weren’t for the returning wind. I saw it first from afar, scuffing the rushes and tugging at the reeds. Then it was upon me as a huge, playful, invisible beast, riffling my shirt with its cold tongue until I buttoned my jacket to keep the thing out.
In town I found a bargain basket, filled to the brim with spring bulbs at a euro a pack. Some were shrivelled, their bulk thrust into pale green shoots of leaves desperate and starving for light. Stirred by another catalytic shaft of sunlight I chose an armful of the best and took them to the corner of the shed, where they must lie waiting at the cold, crude tooth that is the spade.
Rain came then, sweeping down from the Partry Hills on a drift of low cloud, and beneath the cloud another wind, a winter wind, spitting sleet to quiet the robin’s song.
I walked to the woods in the gloaming, where ash and birch clattered twigs high overhead and woodcock sprang away with bursting cries inches from my feet, as feathered missiles bound ultimately for some far off land. A little mouse-like bird crept through the briars at my side, eagerly searching for a few last morsels before another long night. Although I saw it only as a flickering silhouette I knew it to be the wren. Somewhere nearby will be its winter nest, a mossy dome the size of a fist, with a side entrance and a roof. It may lack the fine feather lining of the family nest that must be built later in the year, but it will be as snug and as warm and as safe a home as any little bird could wish for.
In bad weather the wren likes to find others of its kind, and they spend the nights together in a communal roost. We once found more than a dozen dead wrens crammed into a small space between two bales of hay, but that was after a blizzard. (Blizzards would seem to be things of the past. We have been free of bank-high drifts of snow for so long that I wonder if we could really cope, should such befall us once more. Yet even now the hills are fringed with white; heavy snows with further driving winds are a real possibility.)
Presently I arrived at the lake, where the water still caught the last of the evening light. A party of little grebes chased up and down, thrashing the water with their wings and uttering desolate cries, a party of maddened clowns. Always my favourite, the little grebe is something of a recluse but definitely worth seeking out. As is the case with all birds, the spring breeding season finds them at their best; the males become colourful buffoons, dancing frenzied jigs to tunes never played, doing their best to impress and entertain the ladies.
They feed on almost anything that they find underwater, making surprisingly long dives to search for grubs and bugs, small fish and amphibians, doing so silently, with discretion and the best of manners, until they are finally overcome with the excitement of life and break out once more with another burst of manic laughter. I would that they lived and lived, and I with them, that I might get to know them well.
After continuing my circuitous route toward home I stopped once more to look back across the water. Once again I knew how rich this life is; the lake pewter, the sky bronze, and all between the two a range of blacks and greys as might defy the finest human artist. Away in the distance a flash of lightning preceded a long, drawn out grumble of thunder. Then peace; the whickering of grebes, the hush of wind on water, the mesmerising ripple of wavelets on the shore.
And home, an acre of papers to be read, with annotations to be made by the score, and dreams to be fed, dreams of longer days, of light, and of laughter.