Warming sights on freezing days
At 6am in December, frost and that cold, bitter wind that cut into the very bones drove me back to the fireside, where the embers of last night’s fire still emitted a vague, warm glow. I raked them together until they came to life, then added a stick or two until they sported smoke, then multi-coloured flames. How glad I was then that the fly rod had stayed in the shed and that gleaning and gathering had taken precedence over those few evenings of riverside entertainment.
I had gone out early to look at the ice-encrusted road in the moonlight. It had sparkled beautifully, inviting me to walk to the lake. I made it halfway there before thinking better of it and turning back, only to find myself compelled to stand beneath the trees and listen as ducks came flighting from the north. They passed overhead, invisible in the dark, the musical sound of their wings the only clue to their passage until there came that manic, laughing cry that is mallard as the first of them dropped to the water. Behind these most familiar birds came the distinctive sound of teal, then more wings that I failed to identify. Goldeneye? In the morning I would see.
It was an uplifting experience to stand out there under the bare trees with faint starlight and a thin crescent of a moon above. It could have been any time in history and almost any place in the world. But it was cold, so cold, with ice underfoot and bands of frozen snow to show me the way home. We had planned a trip to Boyle; they are a resourceful lot down there. They would manage admirably without me. I went back to bed.
In the first light of day I walked further again, hoping to meet with some of these latest arrivals and perhaps identify the owner of the unfamiliar wingbeat. There were, however, few birds to be seen other than those that have been in residence for a number of weeks. Those new arrivals must have moved on then, perhaps to one of the many attractive bays of Lough Mask, or to the richer waters between the many treed islands of Corrib.
My early trek was no fruitless endeavour though, for I was treated to ten minutes of entertainment by a quartet of lapwing that flew in ragged patterns over the scrubby pasture, showing me their dark backs and white fronts alternately. Four is few enough, but four is also four more than we saw here last year. Where are the huge flocks of lapwing that we used to see every winter? We might see them again if only we could bear to let them have their land back. A recent trip to the flat fields of Belgium showed me flocks many hundreds strong, evidence that wildlife can survive and even prosper in intensively farmed areas.
The lapwing also goes by the names of ‘peewit’, this taken from the rather plaintive cry that the bird utters endlessly while airborne, and ‘green plover’, on account of the metallic green coloration of its darker plumage. I remember how, as a young boy, I ran my fingers over those wondrous colours when a brace of peewit were pulled from the game bag broken and bloodied, already stiffening in death.
What a travesty it had seemed, even then, when the birds wheeling over fields of stubble were beyond number, when they followed the plough in clouds. Now it would be a crime to take one for the table, for the unfortunate lapwing has found itself listed together with so many others as a species of conservation concern. How poor we should be if these birds were no longer neighbours to ourselves. Recession brings opportunity, opportunity, perhaps, for us to get to know our wild land once more.