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NATURE Birdlife on Lough Carra

Outdoor Living
Lake life on winter’s wing

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Last night whooper swans flew under the moon. I heard them from a distance, hidden wings and whooping calls, and this morning I find that winter ducks are beginning to congregate in their favourite little corner of Lough Carra.
It seems to suit them particularly well here, offering shelter from the north and west wind and thick reed beds to retreat into should danger threaten. It is also the location of a large spring (a well, I am told) which permits the admission of large quantities of nutrient-rich groundwater. Not only does this encourage lush aquatic growth, it allows a prolific variety of insects to thrive, which feed the fish that feed other things, including myself.
The water that emanates from the spring is often warmer than that already in the lough, so that this particular bay stays ice-free through all but the coldest of weather, allowing diving ducks and dabbling ducks access to the plentiful supply of food. When we get to winter we expect to see them here in good numbers. Already I see dozens of tufted duck gathered into distinct groups of six to eight birds each. I imagine them to be family groups moving in from their different breeding territories. They are currently strangers; cold will draw them together. For now they communicate in their own peculiar language of posture and semi-musical grunting. 
It is now early morning. The sun is just reaching through the trees on the eastern shore to colour our resident mute swans in shades of orange and gold. An ethereal mist appears but for a moment before dissipating into nothingness. It is a long time since I saw the swans. In the brown and gold of autumn they have assumed a somewhat melancholy appearance. Perhaps they are mourning the loss of their family. Certainly the young ones are nowhere to be seen.
The half a dozen cygnets they brought off the nest back in May soon became five, then four, and three by the time they were half-grown. Now the adult pair are alone once more, so the demise of their offspring is almost certain. Such has been the case for the last few years.
Are mink to blame? I haven’t seen a mink for several months, nor found trails or tracks or any other signs. Perhaps we are free of them. I doubt it. Anyway, any failing in their numbers will soon be more than undone, thanks to the release into the wild of thousands of farmed mink in Donegal. The ‘animal rights’ folk responsible would do well to consider the impact of their activity before indulging their fantasies. So perhaps the mink ought not be treated as they are and have a right to life. Do not the native animals and birds have an equal or greater right not to be exterminated? There are no answers, only opinions. Education is needed, and sorely so.
Now, as I watch over my little corner, the tufted ducks are beginning to mingle. While the dark-breasted females are peaceable creatures, a few of the adult males appear to be of the opinion that this kind of close association is nothing short of preposterous. Two of the closest are set to fight for the right to swim here. They paddle alongside each other, beaks to the fore, and now in short circuits about themselves, uttering low growls. Now! They flurry together but for a moment before one attempts to flee, only to find his silly tail grasped firmly in the beak of the other.
This brief altercation has brought a score of other ‘tufties’ into view and the episode looks set to be re-enacted. I could stay and watch them longer.
The overhead passage of a sparrow hawk draws a wailing alarm from the little grebe hidden in the reeds. The rising sun reminds me of breakfast. I find that frost has magically appeared beneath my boots, so that my feet move with a light crunch. Another fight breaks out on the water. Coots this time - fighting over the same thing, although there is enough for all and plenty more besides.
I just have time to gather a few mushrooms to go with an egg or two. Then the day awaits, as a spread table, a feast for the senses, a veritable banquet. Tuck in!

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